WHEN THE GODS, instead of humans, did the work and bore the loads, dug the canals and cleared the channels, dredged the marshes and plowed the fields, they groaned amongst themselves and grumbled over the masses of excavated soil. The labor was heavy, the misery too much. So they set fire to their tools, set fire to their spades. And off they went, one and all, to the gate of the great god Enlil, the counselor of the gods.
“We have to put a stop to the digging,” they cried. “The load is excessive. It is killing us! The labor is heavy, the misery too much!”
Enlil consulted Mami, midwife of the gods. “You are the womb-goddess,” he said. “Create a mortal, that he may bear the yoke. Let humans bear the load of the gods.”
So Mami, with the help of the wise god Enki, mixed clay with blood and created seven males and seven females. She gave them picks and spades, and led them, two by two, down to earth to relieve the gods of their labor.
Six hundred and six hundred years passed, and the earth became too wide and the people too numerous. The land was as noisy as a bellowing bull. And the gods grew restless at the racket.
“The noise of mankind has become too much,” Enlil snapped. “I am losing sleep.”
A divine assembly of the gods was convened, and there it was decided by all to make a great flood that would wipe humanity from the face of the earth so that the gods could finally be free of the clamor.
Now, down on the earth, there was a pious man named Atrahasis, whose ear was open to his own god, Enki. He would speak with Enki, and Enki would speak with him.
In a dream, Enki came to Atrahasis and made his voice heard. “Dismantle your house and build a boat,” the wise god Enki warned. “Leave all your possessions and put aboard the seed of all living things. Draw out the boat that you will make on a circular plan. Let her length and breadth be equal. Make upper decks and lower decks.”
So Atrahasis built a boat and loaded it with the seed of all living things. He put on board his kith and kin. He put on board the birds flying in the heavens. He put on board cattle from the open country, wild beasts from the open country, wild animals from the steppes. Two by two they entered the boat. Then Atrahasis, too, entered the boat and shut the door.
When the first light of dawn appeared, a black cloud rose from the base of the sky. Everything light turned into darkness. The tempest arose like a battle force. Anzu, the storm god—the lion-headed eagle—tore at the sky with his talons.
Then the flood came. Like a wild ass screaming, the winds howled. The darkness was total; there was no sun. No man could see his fellow, no people could be distinguished from the sky. Even the gods were afraid of the deluge. They withdrew to heaven, where they cowered like dogs crouched by a wall.
For seven days and seven nights the torrent, the storm, the flood came on. The tempest overwhelmed the land. Bodies clogged the river like dragonflies. When the seventh day arrived, the storm, which had struggled like a woman in labor, blew itself out. The sea became calm and the flood-plain flat as a roof.
The boat came to rest atop Mount Nimush and Atrahasis exited. He released a dove. The dove came back, for no perching place was visible to it. He released a swallow. The swallow came back, for no perching place was visible to it. He released a raven. The raven did not come back. So Atrahasis and his kith and kin, and the birds of the heavens, and the cattle from the open country, and the wild beasts from the open country, and the wild animals from the steppes came out of the boat. And there he made a sacrifice of thanks to Enki his god.
But when Enlil smelled the sacrifice and saw the boat, he was furious. Once again, he called the divine assembly to order. “We, all of us, agreed together on an oath. No form of life should have escaped. How did any man survive the catastrophe?”
Enki, the wise, spoke. “I did it, in defiance of you! It was I who made sure life was preserved.”
The gods were humbled by Enki’s words. They wept and were filled with regret. Mami, the midwife of the gods, cried. “How could I have spoken such evil in the gods’ assembly? I myself gave birth to them; they are my own people.”
So Enlil and Enki came to a compromise. “Instead of imposing a flood, let a lion come up and diminish the people. Instead of imposing a flood, let a wolf come up and diminish the people. Instead of imposing a flood, let famine lessen the land. Let war and plague savage the population.”
The divine compromise reached, Enki came down to the boat and took Atrahasis by the hand. He took his wife by the hand. He touched their foreheads and made a declaration.
“Henceforth, this man and this woman shall be as we gods are.”1
IF THE ANCIENT Sumerian epic of Atrahasis and the flood, composed more than four thousand years ago, sounds familiar, it should. Tales of a world-ending deluge that destroys all of humanity save for a fortunate few are among the oldest and most widely spread in human history. The myth is, in some ways, the quintessential “folk memory,” as most scholars believe it is based on an actual catastrophic flood that took place some time in the distant past. Indigenous versions of a flood epic can be found in Egypt, Babylon, Greece, India, Europe, East Asia, North and South America, and Australia. The reasons for the flood differ depending on who is telling the story. There are different settings, different gods, different endings—each reworked to reflect the particular culture and religion of the storyteller.
The hero Atrahasis is known by many names. In the twelfth-century B.C.E. Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, he is called Utnapishtim. In the Greek Babyloniaka of Berossus, composed in the third century B.C.E., his name is Xisuthros, and the Sumerian god Enki is replaced with the Greek god Kronos. In the Bible, Atrahasis is called Noah, while Enki becomes the Hebrew god Yahweh. In the Quran it is Nuh and Allah.
Yet no matter the setting or the reason, the hero or the god, most of these flood narratives can be traced to a single source composed in the first written language, by the first great civilization: Sumer.
The agricultural revolution that took hold around 10,000 B.C.E. spread rapidly through the Fertile Crescent, reaching its zenith in the lush alluvial plains of ancient Mesopotamia. Wedged between the legendary rivers of creation, the Tigris and the Euphrates, in what is today known as Iraq and Syria, Mesopotamia (meaning “between two rivers” in Greek) benefited from a temperate climate and periodic flooding, which created a mineral-rich environment ripe for agricultural growth.
By 9000 B.C.E. there were large, dry farming zones throughout the region, particularly in the south, where small fishing villages clustered against the two great rivers as they met and discharged into the Persian Gulf. By 7000 B.C.E., most common species of plants and animals, with the exception of horses and camels, had been domesticated in Mesopotamia. The next two thousand years saw widespread agricultural expansion stretching west into Egypt and east to the Iranian plateau. The small blocks of fishing and farming villages began merging to form the first proto-cities. At Çatalhöyük in southern Anatolia, between the years 7000 and 6500 B.C.E., nearly a thousand households lived together in a large agricultural settlement boasting elaborately painted shrines dedicated to a fertility goddess. Around 6000 B.C.E., northern Mesopotamia saw the emergence of the Halaf, an advanced culture known for their mastery of pottery. After about a thousand years, the Halaf ceded their cultural domain of the region to the Ubaid, whose reach extended deep into southern Mesopotamia, all the way to modern Bahrain and Oman.
It was the Ubaid, and not the gods, who sometime around 5000 B.C.E. drained the marshes and drew canals from the Tigris and Euphrates, establishing the world’s first irrigation system. No one knows exactly when these inhabitants of southern Mesopotamia came to be known as Sumerians,or whether the Sumerians and Ubaidis were even related. The word Sumer is actually Akkadian—a Semitic language that was the most widely spoken in Mesopotamia. It means “land of the civilized kings.” The Sumerians referred to themselves as “the black-headed people.” Yet wherever they came from and however they arose, by 4500 B.C.E., the Sumerians had cemented their dominance over Mesopotamia by founding what is regarded as the first major city in the world, Uruk.
From their seat at Uruk, the Sumerians created the most advanced civilization the world had ever known. They invented the wheel and the sailboat. They expanded irrigation channels to allow for year-round farming on an immense scale. Mass farming relieved the Sumerians of many of the more burdensome requirements of agricultural life, leading to the flowering of Sumerian culture and religion, the achievement of great works of art and architecture, the creation of complex mythologies such as the Atrahasis epic, and, most earth-shattering of all, the invention of writing.
Writing changes everything. Its development marks the dividing line between prehistory and history. The entire reason why Mesopotamia is known as the Cradle of Civilization is because some time in the fourth millennium B.C.E., the Sumerians began to press blunt reed styluses onto wet clay to make the distinctive wedge-shaped lines we call cuneiform, allowing human beings, for the first time in history, to record their most abstract thoughts.2
It did not take long for Sumerian cuneiform to be adopted by the other local languages of Mesopotamia, including Akkadian and its two principal dialects: Babylonian in the south, which became the language of literary works and inscriptions, and Assyrian in the north, which was used mostly for economic and political documents until it faded away with the collapse of the Assyrian empire in the seventh century B.C.E. The Akkadian language survived in spoken form throughout the Middle East for three thousand years, until it was fully displaced by Aramaic in the first century B.C.E.3
Thanks to cuneiform, we have at our disposal a treasure trove of archives and documents, of kings lists and chronicles of major cities and dynasties, of personal letters that cast light on societal life and government documents that outline the workings of the ancient state. We have temple records detailing the various cults of Mesopotamia. Most spectacularly, we have a veritable library of sprawling, unforgettable myths and legends that offers nearly unfettered access to what is arguably the earliest and most influential advanced religious system ever devised.
The Sumerians were not the only Neolithic civilization to create a sophisticated religion; they were probably not even the first to do so. But they were the first to write about it, and that made all the difference, not only because it allowed their religious ideas to spread across the region, but because, with the invention of writing, the compulsion to humanize the divine—a compulsion rooted in our cognitive processes and crudely expressed at Göbekli Tepe—became actualized. The act of writing about the gods, of being forced to describe in words what the gods are like, not only transformed how we envision the gods; it made conscious and explicit our unconscious and implicit desire to make the gods in our own image. That’s because when we write about the gods, when we place them in a mythical narrative at the beginning of creation or in the midst of debating an apocalyptic flood, we cannot help but imagine the gods thinking and acting as we ourselves would think and act. We implant in them our attributes and emotions; we ascribe to them our will and our motivations.
The very words we choose to describe the gods affect how we understand their nature, their personality, even their physical form. For example, the word for “god” in Sumerian is ilu, which means something like “lofty person,” and so that became precisely how the gods were envisioned in Sumerian writings: as elevated beings who had human bodies and wore human clothes, who expressed human emotions and exhibited human personalities. The gods of Sumer were born to mothers who suckled them when they were young. They had fathers with whom they clashed as they grew older. They fell in love and got married. They had sex and birthed children. They lived in houses with their families, and had relatives with whom they formed giant celestial clans. They ate and drank and complained about work. They argued and fought with one another. Occasionally they were wounded and died. They were, in the most meaningful sense, human.
As the widespread adoption of the Atrahasis story demonstrates, the myths that germinated in the land between two rivers quickly grew shoots in Europe and North Africa. They blossomed across the Caucasus mountains and over the Aegean Sea. They flowered in the religious systems of the Egyptians and the Greeks, the Indians and the Persians. They fully bloomed in the pages of the Bible and the Quran, where the Sumerian word ilu became transliterated as Elohim in Hebrew and Allah in Arabic. And, not surprisingly, everywhere the myths of Mesopotamia spread, so, too, did the Mesopotamian perception of the gods as “lofty persons.”4
THE MESOPOTAMIANS WERE polytheists, meaning they worshiped multiple gods simultaneously. Indeed, the Mesopotamian pantheon contained more than three thousand deities. There was Aya, the goddess of light, who was wife to Shamash, the god of the sun; Damu, the healer, and Girra, the god of fire and refiner of metals; Sin, the powerful moon god; Enki the wise, who together with Enlil, “the decreer of fates,” and An (or Anu), the sky god, made up the three most important deities in the early Mesopotamian pantheon. There were, in fact, so many gods in Mesopotamia that ancient scribes had to compile complex “god lists” to keep track of them all.5
Where the Mesopotamians came up with all of these gods is a difficult question to answer. The nine-thousand-year spiritual journey that took humanity from the faceless, humanoid pillars at Göbekli Tepe to the vibrant, personalized deities of Mesopotamia is obscured by a dearth of material evidence. However, a remarkable series of finds in Jericho, one of the most ancient cities on earth and the prelude to the great city-states of Mesopotamia, has shed some light on this intermediate stage of human spirituality.
In 1953, the famed British archaeologist Dame Kathleen Kenyon was overseeing an excavation in Tell es-Sultan, near the ancient city of Jericho, when she noticed the smooth dome of what appeared to be an intact human skull protruding from a pit she had dug. When she exhumed the skull she was amazed to discover that it was covered in plaster. Its facial features had been perfectly reconstructed with clay so that it looked alive. Inside its hollow eye sockets were two pale, pearly shells. The skull had been removed from a buried corpse and then reburied underneath a private home. Further excavations revealed six more skulls just like it, all buried beneath the same house, and dating to between 8000 and 6000 B.C.E.
Since Kenyon’s find at Jericho, similar caches of human skulls have been discovered buried under floors and hearths, beneath beds and platforms, in private homes as far afield as ‘Ain Ghazal in Jordan, Tell Ramad and Byblos in Syria, and Çatalhöyük in Turkey. The skulls are often surrounded with jewels and weapons and carefully arranged, either packed in a tight circle and looking inward, or facing outward in the same direction.6
We know that Neolithic peoples considered the head (or, rather, the brain) to be the seat of the soul, which is why they so often collected and preserved human skulls. But the presence of these large caches buried under homes in what, for all intents and purposes, look like private household shrines may indicate the emergence early in the Neolithic Era of manism—a belief popularly referred to as “ancestor worship.”
Plastered human skull found in Jericho
Jononmac46 / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / Wikimedia Commons
As we have seen, the veneration of ancestors can be traced all the way back to the Paleolithic era. It is the result of the animistic belief that the souls of the dead continue to exist as spirits in the world. Yet with the birth of agriculture, ancestor worship became more complex and pronounced. The earth in which the dead were buried was now the soil from which our sustenance grew. It therefore made sense to focus our spiritual efforts on the recently dead in the hope that they would intercede with the forces of nature on behalf of the living, whether to help preserve the crops or maintain the health and viability of the herd. With the passage of time, some of these deceased ancestors evolved into deities—the better to intercede with the natural forces—until the middleman, as it were, was removed and the forces of nature themselves became deified.
This theory is supported by the fact that many of Mesopotamia’s gods began their existence as little more than the deification of the natural elements. An was both the sky god and the sky itself. Shamash was both the sun god and the sun. It may have been partly the need to better manage these natural forces, to maintain power and influence over them, that spurred the Mesopotamians to personalize these gods, to gradually transform them into a pantheon of individual deities, each with a specific sphere of influence—whether earthly, cultural, or cosmic—and each with a specific function in the lives of their worshippers. From there, it was simply a matter of giving each god a personality, a set of human traits, and a distinct form, and the “lofty persons” were born.
Most of the major gods in Mesopotamia were connected to a particular city-state: Enlil in the city of Nippur, Sin in the city of Ur, Inanna in Uruk, and so on. And while each city-state had its own temple, these were not primarily places of worship; they were, rather, the earthly residences of the gods. Each was thought to be literally a god’s second home—a kind of vacation house complete with gardens, walls, doors, and fences, where the gods could take time away from their celestial abodes to dwell with humans on earth. The temples were often built in the form of stepped structures called ziggurats—the rectangular pyramidal towers made of baked mud brick that are the hallmark of Mesopotamian architecture. Yet unlike the later Egyptian pyramids, Mesopotamian temples were solid structures, completely filled in, layered in successively receding stories, like staircases that the gods could use to move back and forth between heaven and earth, and capped with a small chamber at the top where the gods could dwell in repose.7
The appearance of a god inside one of these chambers was signified by the presence of an idol carved in the god’s image. The use of idols was not a Mesopotamian innovation. Like the veneration of ancestors, the carving of idols to represent spirits or gods can be traced to the Paleolithic era. Dozens of idols—the vast majority of them female and pregnant, with round, distended bellies bulging out beneath their plump breasts—have been unearthed in Paleolithic sites across Europe and Asia.8
In Mesopotamia, however, efficiencies in sculpting and molding made the use of idols in public devotion far more common and widespread. Each day a priest or priestess—depending on the gender of the god—would enter a temple’s chamber, wash, dress, and feed the idol, anoint it with perfumes and incense, embellish it with cosmetics, and, on special occasions, take it out for a stroll so it could visit its fellow gods in neighboring temples. It was only then that the masses would set eyes upon their gods; the laity was not allowed into the temples and thus had no direct access to the deities residing within.
Nevertheless, no Mesopotamian would have thought that the small idol hoisted up in the air by a priest was actually a god. This is a complete misunderstanding of the term “idol worship.” Ancient peoples did not worship slabs of stone; they worshiped the spirits that resided within them. The idol was not itself a god; it was imbued with the god. The god was thought to take form within the idol.
However, the consequence of such a belief is that when the spirit of one of these “lofty persons” entered an idol, the idol became the spirit’s body. It reflected the god’s physical appearance on earth. Put another way, while no one in Mesopotamia would have considered the idol to actually be the god, most would have readily accepted the idea that the idol looked like the god.9
This is a complex yet exceedingly important point. In the same way that when we write about a god we instinctively attribute to that god human emotions and motivations, when we visualize a god—when we expertly carve an idol in the god’s image or paint the god on a stained-glass window—we instinctively conjure the human form. We may provide that form with wings, as Enlil has, or flames rising from its shoulders, like Shamash. We may exaggerate the god’s size or give the god multiple arms and legs. But such embellishments merely provide the minimally counterintuitiveelement necessary to assure that the god will be remembered and successfully transmitted (recall Eve’s talking tree). Attenuate these supernatural flourishes slightly, and what remains is not an ethereal force of nature, but a human being with superhuman powers.
Mesopotamian deities on the Adda seal, including Ishtar (with wings), Shamash (rising with sword in hand), and Enki
Copyright © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.
The example of Egypt, Mesopotamia’s civilizational successor, is highly instructive in this regard. Early in Egyptian history, during what is known as the Pre-Dynastic Period (c. 5000–3000 B.C.E.), the Egyptians were pure animists; they believed that all beings were animated by a single, divine force that permeated the universe. This force manifested itself to some degree in gods and spirits but was itself amorphous—without shape, substance, or will. However, with the invention of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing sometime around 3300 B.C.E.—not long after and probably under the influence of Sumerian cuneiform—there arose a need to make this abstract force more concrete. It had to be visualized so that it could be etched onto the walls of temples or inked onto strips of papyrus. It had to be made real and recognizable in relation to the world so that it could be understood and harnessed. And so, as happened in Mesopotamia, this abstract divine force eventually became realized in human form. By the start of the Old Kingdom (c. 2686–2181 B.C.E.), the Egyptian pantheon of humanized gods had been fully formed and the religion of ancient Egypt firmly established.10
Unlike in Mesopotamia, however, the gods of Egypt were often depicted in multifarious ways—rendered as human or animal or, more often than not, a combination of the two. Thus Hathor, the Egyptian goddess of music, dance, and fertility, could be a cow wearing a woman’s necklace, a cow/woman hybrid, or a woman with the furry ears of a cow protruding from the sides of her head. Likewise, Anubis, the god of mummification and protector of the dead, could be a jackal, or a man with a jackal’s head.
These flourishes not only provided the minimally counterintuitive properties necessary to make the gods more memorable; they allowed Egyptians to manage and, more important, manipulate the god’s symbolic function. Anubis was depicted as a jackal-headed man because the jackal is a scavenging animal known for occasionally digging up and devouring corpses buried in the desert. By depicting the protector of graves as a jackal in human form, the Egyptians sought to control what was a widely feared force of nature with the power to disrupt the funerary practices that were so vital to ancient Egyptian spirituality.11
Still, no matter what form the gods of Egypt took, they were, like the gods of Mesopotamia, always described in human terms, with human impulses, human desires, and human instincts. Even when the gods were portrayed as animals in Egyptian art and literature, they were still given human traits and behavior; they were still depicted as taking part in human activities. They ate, drank, and slept like humans. They argued with each other and fought over petty jealousies. They had family problems. They displayed good and bad moods. They could be all-knowing or just plain stupid.
Almost the exact same process occurred a thousand years later, this time among the loosely affiliated collective of tribes that scholars refer to as the Indo-Europeans—a designation meant to acknowledge their influence in shaping the languages of Europe and the Near East. Perhaps as long ago as 5000 B.C.E., the Indo-Europeans embarked on a series of migrations from their homeland (likely near the Caucasus, though this is disputed) eastward to the Caspian Sea and the Iranian plateau, southward to the Black Sea and Anatolia and Greece, and westward to the Baltic Sea and Europe. As they settled into their new lands and either merged with or conquered the indigenous populations, the Indo-Europeans left a deep imprint on the religious traditions of this vast region: the hierarchical pantheon of the Canaanite cults; the nature spiritism of the Celts; the religiously inspired caste systems of India; the exceedingly ritualistic practices of ancient Iran; the Hellenic myths of Homer and Hesiod; the philosophical ideals of Plato and Aristotle—in other words, the spiritual landscape from which Judaism, Christianity, and Islam arose.12
The Indo-European pantheon of gods was constructed in the same way as that of Mesopotamia and Egypt, by deifying the forces of nature: Dyeus, the sky god; Agni, the god of fire; Indra, the sun god; Varuna, the god of the primordial waters; and so on. But, as happened in Mesopotamia and Egypt, when these gods were written about for the very first time in the Rig Veda—the oldest sacred text of India, composed in Sanskrit around 1500 B.C.E.—they shed their airy natures and took on specific human qualities and appearances. And when in the following centuries these Vedic portrayals became actualized into the vibrant idols of Hindu religiosity, the transformation of these Indo-European deities from deified nature to humanized gods was complete: Indra with his golden skin, hair, and beard, clad in perfumed garments; the two-faced Agni with his many arms and legs; Varuna, resplendent and riding atop a crocodile.13
In each of these civilizations, the more accustomed people became to seeing images of their gods displayed in public temples and shrines—the more they heard their stories and legends during public festivals and ceremonies—the more easily they could personalize the abstract forces of nature their ancestors once worshiped. Much as the invention of the printing press made ideas more available to the multitudes, the mass production of personified idols, and the increased technological skill in crafting them, made the gods seem more recognizably human—until, in ancient Greece, they became too human to be taken seriously as gods.
GREEK HISTORY DOES not begin with the grand epics of Homer and Hesiod, which together have given us perhaps the most complete picture possible of the piety and personality of an ancient civilization. It begins, rather, in the Middle Bronze Age, around 1600 B.C.E., with the enigmatic seafaring civilization known as the Mycenaeans. As the first great colonizers of the Aegean, the Mycenaean civilization bestowed upon the Greek Isles many of the gifts for which we now thank ancient Greece, including possibly the classical Greek script.14
The Mycenaeans also gave the Greeks many of their gods, in particular Poseidon, the god of the sea, who may have been the supreme god of the Mycenaean pantheon (Zeus, a martial deity, was derived from the Indo-European sky god, Dyeus, and seems to have ascended to the top of the Greek pantheon at a much later date). As the deification of the primordial waters, Poseidon was naturally linked to the Earth Goddess, or Gaia, another major Mycenaean deity (Poseidon’s name means “Earth’s husband”). Not surprisingly, the Mycenaeans also deified the winds, an element of nature as integral to the spiritual lives of seafarers as water and earth. Other Greek gods familiar to us, including Athena and Hera, were known to the Mycenaeans, and these, too, seem to have begun their existence as deifications of the natural world: Athena likely began as a solar deity, and Hera may have represented the air.
Yet in the Greek epics, these gods became less the personification of the forces of nature and more the divinization of various human attributes: Athena, the goddess of wisdom; Hera, the goddess of maternal love. And while the Greek pantheon originally included dozens of different deities, each with a specific origin and function, by the time they were written about in Homer and Hesiod, they had more or less been condensed into twelve principal gods—known as the Olympians—depicted by the Greeks as members of one big family.
In the Greek imagination, Mount Olympus was not just the abode of the gods who ruled over humanity; it was the home of a highly dysfunctional divine family engaged with one another in the same cosmic drama, like characters in a long-running soap opera who are constantly interacting in each other’s storylines. There was Zeus, the patriarch, father of gods and men; Hera, whom the Greeks transformed into Zeus’s sister and wife; and their firstborn son, Ares, the god of war. There were also Zeus’s two brothers: Poseidon, demoted from his perch at the height of the Mycenaean pantheon, and Hades, god of the underworld, as well as his second sister, Demeter, goddess of agriculture. Add to these Zeus’s other son, Hermes, whom he bore with the goddess Maia; his twin children Apollo and Artemis, both born from his tryst with the goddess Leto; Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy, whom he sired with a mortal woman; Athena, who in her evolution from Mycenaean to Greek goddess became Zeus’s daughter, born directly out of his head after he had swallowed his pregnant wife, Metis; and Zeus’s favorite child, Aphrodite, goddess of love and sex.
The ancient Egyptians also organized their gods as a family, modeled after the relationships among Egypt’s most beloved trio of deities: Osiris, his sister and wife Isis, and their valiant son, the falcon-headed Horus. But the Greeks perfected the concept of the divine family. And why not? What better way to relate to the gods? This way, when we pray to them for help with our own struggles, we can be certain that they understand us. They understand our trials and tribulations and can address them as if they were their own. As Barbara Graziosi writes in her indispensable book The Gods of Olympus, “The Greek gods are familiar to us because they are, quite simply, a family.”15
Council of the Gods by Raphael and his school, Loggia di Psiche in the Villa Farnesina, Rome (c. 1517–18 C.E.) Wikimedia Commons
For some Greeks, however, that was precisely the problem. The gods written about by the poets of ancient Greece were too morally reproachable, their exploits too maudlin, their concerns too human, for them to continue to command respect as gods. How can one have respect for a god like Zeus, who is forever having to settle petty disputes between his wives and children, and who is constantly sneaking away from Mount Olympus to conduct affairs with various goddesses, human women, and young boys?
Pushed to its logical extreme, the impulse to depict the gods in increasingly human terms can quickly seem foolish. It is one thing to ascribe human traits to a deity. It is something else altogether to endow the gods with the full range of human emotions through which they come so vibrantly alive in Greek literature. Are we really to imagine these supreme beings behaving the way they do in the Homeric myths: as adulterous, thieving, jealous, lustful, easily tricked, and utterly corruptible beings who just happen to be immortal?
Even as the Greeks were grappling with the dilemma of so effectively humanizing the gods in their literature, they were making similar objections to the progressively humanlike idols crowding their temples. The earliest expressions of the Greek gods were not the heroic statues we are used to seeing in museums, but rather abstract representations made of unshaped blocks of wood or stone meant to express the god’s spirit, not its physical form. Hera, for instance, was represented as a pillar in the port city of Argos and as a plank of wood on the island of Samos. Athena was originally worshiped as a flat piece of olive wood that was washed and bejeweled, wrapped in garments, and carefully tended by a cadre of her priestesses.16
But by the time the master Greek artisan Phidias sculpted the magnificent statue of Athena in ivory and gold for the Parthenon—the most famous and widely known cult statue in all the Greek Isles—the likeness of the goddess with shield in hand and a helmet bearing the image of the sphinx on her head had become the primary form through which she was recognized and worshiped. The same process occurred with images of Hera, of Poseidon, and indeed of all the great gods of Greece.17
As with the elaborate depiction of the gods in Greek literature, it was precisely the advanced artistry of Greek sculptors, and the skill they had mastered in rendering the gods so realistically in human form, that created the wedge of doubt about the nature—and indeed the very existence—of the entire Greek pantheon. Could the gods really look exactly like human beings? And not just any humans, but ethnically Greek humans, with their lush beards, curled locks, and sharp, aquiline noses? How could it be that immortal, universal gods responsible for all of creation and everyone in it would look just like a stately fishmonger from Crete?
For many Greeks, the process of so successfully humanizing the gods in writing and in marble exposed the logical fallacy embedded in our innate desire to make the gods in our image. Xenophanes of Colophon, one of the earliest known critics of the ancient Greek religion, put the problem succinctly: “If horses or oxen or lions had hands,” he wrote, “horses would draw the figures of the gods as similar to horses, and the oxen as similar to oxen.”18
Xenophanes was not alone in questioning the premise upon which tens of thousands of years of human spirituality had been built—going back to the pillars at Göbekli Tepe, back to the image of the Sorcerer etched on the wall of the Volp caves, back to the very origins of the religious impulse. Numerous other Greek thinkers—Thales of Miletus, Heraclitus of Ephesus, Plato, and Pythagoras, to name just a few—also began to reconsider the fundamental nature of the gods. These Greeks wanted something from their gods other than mere familiarity. They strove for a religion framed not by the mawkish abuses of Zeus and his family, but by the idea of god as utterly nonhuman, either in appearance or in nature—god as the unified principle steering all creation: unchanging and unchangeable, bodiless, and, above all, singular.
“One god,” Xenophanes wrote. “Like mortals neither in form nor in thought.”19
For Xenophanes and like-minded Greeks, belief in “one god” was based less on a theological argument than on their conception of the natural world as singular and immutable. After all, if nature is one, then god—“the Mind which shaped and created all things,” as Thales called it—must also be one. It was driven by their need for mathematical simplicity: If one is the origin of all numbers and the essence of mathematical unity—the monad, as the Pythagoreans termed it—then god must also be one. Finally, it was driven by their understanding of truth: If Plato was right that Truth, in its ideal, eternal form, is one, then god must also be one.
In striving for “one god,” these Greek thinkers were trying to redefine god as pure substance, as the underlying reality that permeates all creation. They were seeking to actively suppress the desire to humanize the divine in favor of a more primal, more animistic conception of god: a dehumanized god, without form or body, personality or will; a god that, as we shall see, few people, either in Greece or anywhere else in the world, had any interest in worshiping.