ANCIENT GREEK CULTURE
[From: Stassinopoulos, Arianna and Roloff Beny. The Gods of Greece. New York:Abrams. 1983.]
The gods may have gone underground for centuries at a time but, like an underground river flowing through Western culture, they have continued to send up springs and fountains inspiring, shaping and fertilizing the Western imagination, even when it was suffocating in the dross of exclusive materialism. . . .
. . . . 'Everything is full of Gods', wrote Thales. 'Zeus is the air, Zeus the earth and Zeus the sky, Zeus everything, and all that is more than these', proclaimed Aeschylus. 'Soul is mingled in the whole', explained Aristotle.
No part of life was complete for the Greeks without the divine, and nothing was more natural than to be surrounded by gods and filled with them. Personification was the most distinctive mode of Greek thinking. Psychic powers, once personified, affected men's hearts and not just their minds. They were 'real demons to be worshipped and propitiated and no mere fragments of the imagination. And, as is well known, they were actually worshipped in every Greek city. To mention Athens alone, we find altars and sanctuaries of Victory, Fortune, Friendship, Forgetfulness, Modesty, Mercy, Peace, and many more . . . . ' The gods are so actively and naturally present in everyday life that holiness has no place in Greek religion. Miracles have no place in it either, or to put it another way, everything is a miracle.
The gods roamed the earth, clad in mist, in hundreds of guises, guardians of mortal men, meting out justice, giving wealth and happiness and taking them away. Nothing important happens without the gods manifesting themselves, yet the natural course never seems interrupted. We hear, indeed we see in our mind's eye, how a god whispers a saving device to a warrior, we hear that he stirs spirit and kindles courage, that he makes limbs nimble and gives a faltering arm strength. But these divine interventions, far from being miraculous, are seen as the very essence of everyday experience because the divine is seen as the basis of all being and reality.
The sanctifying of the everyday, one of the highest ideals of all religions, is here a living truth. 'The faculty which in other religions is constantly being thwarted and inhibited here flowers forth with the admirable assurance of genius--the faculty of seeing the world in the sight of the divine, not a world yearned for, aspired to, or mystically present in rare ecstatic experiences, but the world into which we were born, part of which we are, interwoven with it through our senses and, through our minds, drawing from it for all its abundance and vitality.'
The Atlas metope from the temple of Zeus at Olympia depicts a scene which compellingly captures the ever-present guardian quality of the gods. Herakles has taken over from Atlas the support of the world; the arch of heaven rests heavily on his shoulders; it threatens to crush him. Unnoticed, the bright and noble figure of Athena has stepped out behind him and, with the indescribable dignity of posture which is the hallmark of Greek divinity, she gently touches the burden. And Herakles, who cannot see her, feels that his strength has miraculously expanded and he is now able to perform what seemed impossible.
At the moment of severest trial, Athena always appears at the side of the mighty heroes she protects. 'Of all mankind', she tells Odysseus in the Odyssey, 'thou are easily foremost, both in counsel and speech, and among all gods I win fame for my wisdom and cleverness.' This is what distinguishes and binds them together. She stands by Odysseus' side through all his trials as the divine embodiment of the wisdom, shrewdness and grandeur that are already present in Odysseus himself.
This kind of 'coincidence' --the sudden appearance of the gods, the 'deus ex machina' which is at the centre of Greek myth and Greek tragedy--stops appearing improbable and infantile when we translate the nearness of the [p. 9] divine at the moments of greatest trial into our everyday language: such and such misfortune or hardship, we say, 'brought out the best in him', or 'put him in touch with resources he never knew he had' or 'he became a different person'. When we approach the gods in the spirit, they awaken in us a trust in our own hidden powers, our own connection with the divine, our own capacity to create miracles and experience transformation.
'We make our destinies by our choice of Gods' [Virgil]
What Virgil's poetic genius knew instinctively, modern psychology confirms empirically. The structure of our being is a field where rival forces--many of them unconscious--contend for power. Our theology may have replaced the gods of the ancient world by one god, omniscient and omnipotent, but psychologically we are still pagans. The state of wholeness and integration, implied by psychological monotheism, remains for most an aspiration rather than reality. When our true self is enthroned at the centre of our being over and above the many selves, the many powers engaged in an inner struggle, then we will indeed have reached the kingdom of one god. But, in the meantime, our being is more accurately described as a kingdom in civil war. And to call the contending powers in us 'gods', as the ancient world did, is to acknowledge both their emotional power over us and the need to propitiate them, to attend to them, to give them conscious recognition--because if we do not, they rise and take their revenge. The neutral language of complexes, archetypes, super-egos and sub -personalities which has dominated our century since Freud popularized the unconscious may sound modern and scientific, but it lacks the emotional immediacy that these forces evoke--and can still evoke--in man when they are personified as gods and goddesses.
'If the unconscious figures', wrote Jung, 'are not accorded the dignity of spontaneously effective factors, one becomes the victim of a one-sided belief in the conscious, which finally leads to a state of mental tension. Catastrophes are then bound to occur, because, despite all one's consciousness, the dark psychic powers have been overlooked. It is not we who personify them; they have a personal nature from the very beginning.'
Acknowledging the personal, distinct nature of these forces slumbering in our unconscious can help us end the delusion of unity and accept the multiplicity of the primordial powers affecting our lives. We have all the gods and goddesses in us, but in differing degrees of intensity--some stronger, some weaker, some in the foreground, some in the background--with a particular god dominating our lives at a particular stage only to retreat when we move on to a different stage.
The conflicts in our lives and our relationships are conflicts among the [p. 10] gods. In Virgil's story of Dido and Aeneas the protagonists are under the sway of two different goddesses--Dido is ruled by Juno [Hera] , the goddess of marriage and permanent unions, Aeneas by Venus [Aphrodite], the goddess of passionate love that refuses to be tied down. They worship at different altars, they embody different ways of loving, and because they fail to see the other's god, the end is tragedy. 'I saw the god', says Aeneas as he is about to leave Dido behind in Carthage. 'I saw the god, as clear as day, with my own eyes, and these ears drank in the words he uttered. No more reproaches then--they only torture us both. God's will, not mine, says "Italy",' Aeneas chose the god to follow and the choice sealed his destiny. Dido's choice sealed hers.
Antagonism among the different gods runs through the whole of Greek mythology, and the classic conflict that has dominated Western literature and has even entered our everyday language is the conflict between Apollo and Dionysos - between the Apollonian and the Dionysian powers in man, between the need for order, balance and clarity and the instinct for freedom, ecstasy and exaltation. In different men, or at different stages in the life of the same man, one god or the other holds sway. The vivid lesson of the Greek myths and of Greek tragedy is that unless both gods are given their due, there is a high price to pay. The need for their reconciliation was even institutionalized in Delphi. Delphi was ApolloÍs home but, during the winter months, he ceded his shrine to Dionysos, and the Dionysian festival was carried out in its full glory by an officially sanctioned band of Maenads.
'Thou that leadest the dance of the fiery stars,' cried Sophocles through his chorus in Antigone, 'watcher over the nocturnal sky, Zeus-born child, appear, lord, with thine attendant Thyiades, who all night long in frenzied ecstasy dance thy dance. . . . ' The need for Dionysian ecstasy was given its sanctioned place in Apollonian order so that it would not rise out of its neglected depths and overthrow it.
We bring about the fights of the gods when we refuse to recognize the separate claims of the forces they represent, when we reject one in favour of the other. Then the rejected god goes underground and only surfaces to wreak his vengeance as he does in Euripides' Bacchae where the grim feast Dionysos demands culminates in a mother's ritual killing of her son under the god's manic influence. Or as he does in Aeschylus' Bassarids, where Orpheus neglects his worship for that of the sun and ends by being torn to pieces by the rejected godÍs followers. It is madness, the poets tell us, to choke off and deny the elemental forces in us. And madness leads to madness. We can choose the god we owe our primary allegiance to, but only if we remember to pay our dues to the rest of our inner pantheon. [p. 12]
'Gods moves as the beloved moves the lover' [Aristotle]
'First of all, Chaos came into being, next broad-bosomed Earth, the solid and eternal home of all, and Eros the most beautiful of the mortal gods, who in every man and every god softens the sinews and overpowers the prudent purpose of the mind.'
In Hesiod's Theogony, Eros is the first god born out of Chaos at the Beginning of creation. He is the creative energy ever present in all things, constantly driving them to relationship and proliferation. He is the connecting principle, the god who embodies the spirit of relatedness. Eros predates the Olympian gods, which is only right since without connection and relationship there can be no life - only divisions and lifeless separateness. In late Greek myths, Eros becomes the son of Aphrodite and Ares, the goddess of love and the god of war. But what this myth gains in picturesque detail, it loses in power, until by Roman times the oldest of the gods, the god whose realm extends from the 'endless space of heavens to the dark abyss of hell', is reduced to little, mischievous Cupid, piercing the hearts of lovers.
Eros is the force, the god, that breeds in us the longing that drives us to physical love and beyond it, ever onward, to the love that yearns for the unattainable, the incomprehensible. So Eros is the god presiding over both man's primordial nature and the highest form of man's spiritual longings. He cannot be grasped because he grasps us. He cannot be understood but only experienced as he shoots through every aspect of our lives. According to Plato, the impulse to seek what is higher - 'the beyond' - comes first from falling in love with visible, physical beauty. Then this impulse, a kind of divine madness, lifts the soul up and guides it to enter the path which leads to the truth. In the Symposium, the highest form of birth engendered by Eros is self-birth in the 'rebirth of the initiate as a divine being'.
The passionate desire to love and possess another physically, the passionate desire to know, the passionate desire to be reborn as a divine being, are all different manifestations of Eros at work. The oldest god is the life-force behind all movement in the universe. [p. 13]
'Tell me is it the mad pomegranate tree that greets us afar
Tossing a leafy handkerchief of cool fire . . .
Tell me, she who unfolds her wings on the breasts of all things
On the breast of our deepest dreams, is it the mad pomegranate tree?'
[Odysseus Elytis] [p. 41]
'Once more let it be your morning, Gods.
We repeat. You alone are primal source
With you the world arises, and a fresh start gleams
On all the fragments of our failures . . . . '
[Rainer Maria Rilke] [p. 44]
The Tholos at Delphi, 4th c. BC.
'A motion and a spirit that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought . . . . ' [Wordsworth] [p. 152]
Gold funerary mask from Mycenae, 16th c. BC. 'The fear of death is indeed the pretense of wisdom, and not real wisdom, for it is pretense of knowing the unknown; and no one knows whether death, which men in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good . . . . ' [Plato, Apology of Socrates] [p. 7] [
Archaic goddess of fertility suckling twins, 540-530 BC. 'Divine Earth, mother of men and of the blessed gods, you nourish all, you give all, you bring all to fruition, and you destroy all.' [Orphic Hymn to Mother Earth] [p. 10]
'That which is above is as that which is below' [Hermetica]
'Hesiod and Homer', wrote Herodotus, 'are the ones who provided the Greeks with a theogony, gave the gods their names, distinguished their attributes and functions, and defined the various types.' But it was Homer who bequeathed to the classical Greeks the brilliant, clear-cut, fully-formed figures of the twelve Olympians who still today embody for us the Hellenic spirit. Single altars were erected to them, the Greeks swore by them as a unity ['By the Twelve!'], and when Alexander reached India, he built an altar to the twelve to mark the eastern-most point of his conquests. [p. 13]
Homer's religion was a daylight religion of joy, strength and beauty, it was the background to the official city-state religions, it was part of the mental equipment with which every Greek grew up, but it was not all. Greek religion, like every religion that is alive and evolving rather than a frozen system of thought, was full of paradox. For a start, the twelve gods were really fourteen: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Aphrodite, Hermes, Athena, Demeter, Hephaistos, Hestia, Dionysos and Hades. To keep the number to twelve, Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, was often left at home so that a place could be made for Dionysos, a later admission to the circle of the Olympians. And Hades, the brother Zeus and Poseidon, was permanently consigned to the underworld. They played no smaller part in peopleÍs lives, though, nor were they any less worshipped by them.
Side by side with the Olympians there were the chthonic [subterranean] deities, local spirits or demons whose cults went back far earlier than the Homeric poems and whose worship remained alive in people's hearts. The Greeks could not see a river without seeing a river god, a tree without seeing a tree spirit, a spring without seeing the Naiad who made her home there. So to experience the Greek religion in all its dimensions--and understand ourselves in all our dimensions--a descent to the chthonic depths is as important as a flight to Olympos.
And when we descend to the depths we encounter, first and foremost, Gaia, the Mother Goddess: 'One race there is of men and one of gods, but from one mother, Earth, draw we both our breath.' The principal Olympian goddesses - Athena, Artemis, Hera and Aphrodite - were each identified with one aspect of the feminine, but the Mother Goddess was, and remains, the feminine in all its primordial power, the instinctive source of renewal with which life has to remain connected, for otherwise it withers away.
Homer's vision of the Underworld paralleled his vision of death as the beginning of an existence deprived of all that made life worth living. The miserable Homeric shades wandered in Hades bodiless, bloodless and boneless, seeking energy and animation from the living throng the blood vapours of sacrificed animals. In the Odyssey, Achilles in the Underworld cries out that he would rather be a labourer working for a poor man on earth than rule as king among the dead.
At the same time, Homer bestowed on the Greeks another vision of life after death in the earthly paradise of the Elysian Fields, reserved for men who had been absorbed into the family of the gods. In the Odyssey, he gives us an example of this blissful immortality in the promise made to Menelaus: 'But as for thee, Menelaus . . . to the Elysian plain and the farthest borders of the earth shall the immortals send thee . . . where life is easier for men. No snow is there, nor heavy storm, nor rain ever, but always Okeanos sends forth the breezes of clear-breathing Zephyr to bring refreshment to men. Thither shall they send the because thou hast Helen to wife and art in their eyes son-in-law of Zeus.'
By the fifth c. BC, through the spread of the Eleusinian Mysteries connected with Demeter and the descent of her daughter Persephone into the Underworld, the gulf between mortal men and the immortal gods was bridged not by adoption into the family of the Homeric gods but by initiation into the rites of the Underworld and the mysteries of their own highest nature. 'Happy is he', writes Pindar, 'who having seen these rites goes below the hollow earth; for he knows the end of life and he knows its god-sent beginnings.' And Sophocles calls those mortals who depart for Hades having seen these rites thrice happy: 'For to them alone it is granted to have found life there.'
The life they find there is not the flesh-and-blood life of Homer's earthy paradise but the life of the divine soul. Across the daylight world of the Homeric gods, the Eleusinian Mysteries linked up with the chthonic cults which Homer never entirely supplanted. They emphasized the kinship of man with all the other creatures of the earth and the kinship--indeed the ultimate identity--between human and divine nature. The mythological brotherhood of Zeus and Hades becomes a psychological reality. One sees the world 'from above and through the light, the other from below and into its darkness'. To live fully the two perspectives must co-exist. Hades' other name was Pluto which in Greek means riches, wealth - the riches of the invisible, of discovering the depths of the soul not only 'after life' but within life. The move into the Underworld, as the journey into the unconscious has shown in our century, is not a move forward in time but a move downward and inward, concurrent with our daily life and enriching our daily concerns with the dimension of soul and depth.
Hades is the unseen yet absolute present god, and even his propitiation is inward and invisible. 'Death is the only god', writes Aeschylus, 'who loves not gifts and cares not for sacrifices or libation, who has no altar and receives no hymns . . . . ' His main connection with men, apart from their direct descent into the underworld of the soul, is through dreams. In the Odyssey, Homer places dreams in the 'House of Hades' or their own realm in the 'Western Ocean' where the sunsets and night begins. And the god who bridges the two realms, the god to whom men turn for dreams is Hermes - the Olympian who, above all others, embodies the principle of connection. He connects gods to each other, men to the gods, and the chthonic, the earthly, element in men and gods to the divine. As the god who guides men [p. 15] in both their descent to the underworld and their flight to Olympos, he is the god in whom all contradictions between the brilliance of Homer's daylight world and the darkness and depth of the mystery cults are reconciled in a living, pulsating, reality.
'I beget the light, but the darkness also is of my nature' [Hermetica] 'Night gave birth to hateful Destruction and the black Spectre and Death; she also bore Sleep and the race of Dreams - all these the dark goddess Night bore without sleeping with any male. Next she gave birth to Blame and painful Grief, and also the Fates and the pitiless Spectres of Vengeance: it is these goddesses who keep account of the transgressions of men and of gods, and they never let their terrible anger end till they have brought punishment down on the head of the transgressor. Deadly Night also bore Retribution to plague men, then Deceit and Love and accursed Old Age and stubborn Strife. Hateful Strife gave birth to painful Distress and Distraction and Famine and tearful Sorrow; also Wars and Battles and Murders and Slaughters; also Feuds and Lying Words and Angry Words; also Lawlessness and Madness - two sisters that go together . . . . ' And so Hesiod goes on in this Theogony, immediately evoking the truth that there is darkness as well as light in the universe, terror as well as beauty. In Homer, the darkness and the light are not separate divinities but contained within each god. The gods who create are the gods who destroy. In dramatic contrast to the idea that has dominated Western culture of one great god and one great, contending principle of evil, each Greek god contains a polarity, an inner tension, a light and a dark side that casts a shadow variously shaped according to his particular character; sometimes vengeful, sometimes cheating, sometimes quarrelsome or belligerent. So man is as much in the image of the gods and goddesses when he is creative, joyful, triumphant, as when his dark underside is showing.
The Greek gods are so human, we say, as we conjure up Hera's jealousy and Artemis' vengeance, Zeus' lust and Demeter's grief. 'The gods are our brothers', wrote Pindar. But it would be truer to say that they are, in fact ourselves. The tensions and ambiguities of each god puzzled and disturbed me for a long time, not because I cannot accept paradox, but because I could not see the ultimate reconciliation. Now I see that the reconciliation is not within each god but among all the gods and all the gods' aspects within man. 'The antithetical powers collide eternally; they meet, fight, conquer and are conquered, become reconciled for a brief moment, and then begin to battle again throughout the Universe - from the invisible whirlpool in a drop of water to the endless cataclysm of stars in the galaxy.'
[Stassinopoulos, Arianna and Roloff Beny. The Gods of Greece. New York: Abrams. 1983.]
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