Greek Gods and Goddessess

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Gods and goddesses of Olympia as shown in this frontispiece from Jacopo Guarana's Oracoli, Auguri, Aruspici, Sibillie, Indovinia dell Religiore Pagana, 1792. Fortean Picture Library.

Greek Gods and Goddessess

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Until fairly recently, serious study of mythology was limited to a narrow academic discipline known as "classical mythology." The key word is "classical," a code word for "Greek." Roman and Egyptian might be thrown in, with a little Celtic and Norse on the side, mostly because the stories seem interesting and entertain the students. But it all began with the Greeks.

Western philosophy and the thought processes leading to Western civilization began with the classical Greeks. The great philosopher George Whitehead once remarked that all of philosophy was merely footnotes to Plato (c. 428-c. 348 BCE). Ancient Greece's cultural dominance happened because of Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE), the young Greek ruler who conquered the Western world. He did something no other general before him had ever done. Rather than sack cities to bring home loot and slaves, Alexander left behind teachers and political leaders who superimposed Greek culture and language over every country they conquered. The result was called Hellenism. It worked so well that by the time of the Caesars, Roman rulers found it practical to leave the system in place. Greek became the language of commerce and economy. Anyone who was educated had to know how to speak and write Greek. It was called koine (common) Greek for that reason. The apostle Paul employed Greek systematic thinking during the formative years of Christianity. The New Testament was written in Greek. The Greek word logos, from which we get the English word for systematic thinking, "logic," was chosen as an early title for Jesus. "In the beginning was the Word [logos]," are the first words of John's Gospel. "The Word [logos] became flesh," we are told. Seminarians today are taught systematic theology. Mathematicians are taught how to create logical proofs. Medicine works with Greek names for drugs. It's hard to imagine anything today, from the fields of math and science to religion and philosophy, that didn't originate with the Greeks and follow Greek patterns of thinking.

So in the field of Greek studies, it was long implied that nothing of any consequence began until the morning Plato was born. The rich history that had taken place before the classical age—the age of Plato—was largely ignored. Two authors, Robert Pirsig with his 1974 book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Joseph Campbell with, among other books, The Power of Myth, helped to focus attention on pre-classical mythology. The old philosophical argument of mythos vs. logos was resurrected—the separation of mythology and logic, intuition and analysis.

Because logical, systematic thinking requires categories, most academic texts on the subject began with theories of mythological interpretation (systems explaining the meaning and evolution of Greek gods and goddesses), which consisted of three subdivisions: physical theories, historical allegories called euhemerism, and moral allegories.

In other words, Greek mythology and religion were understood to have been attempts to explain the physical world, understand human history, or teach ethics and morality. Much of civilization began to think differently after Plato and Aristotle. Their analytic, left-brained, philosophical system of thought, what we now call "scientific" or categorical thinking, has so dominated Western thought processes that most of us can't imagine there is any other way to think. Even in monotheistic religion, Aristotle was the darling of the reformers. Before him, our ancestors existed in the realm of the muses, classical mythology. So the study of Greek myths was seen as a specialized field of interesting historical academia, much as the teaching of classical Greek and Latin used to be considered important to a well-rounded education.

The late nineteenth century saw the beginning of the so-called "modern" period, with mythology divided into categories of romantic, anthropological (Edward Tylor's Primitive Culture and James Frazer's Golden Bough were both in vogue for a while), and linguistic.

When Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) advanced his psychological theory of myth interpretation, academia almost laughed him out of town. That is the point at which the two streams of modern mythological studies, classical and psychological, diverged. For the first time, somebody had dared suggest that myths might stem from the individual rather than the culture. This was a brand new way of thinking in the West, and it caused no end of academic consternation.

That consternation still lingers. Barry Powell is a respected scholar of mythology, as was the late Joseph Campbell (1904-1987). But Campbell rates only a footnote on page 650 of Powell's Classical Myth textbook used in many colleges. Here Powell acknowledges Campbell's "popularity" but assures students, "Although his works are interesting to read, they have limited value to scholars... because of his eagerness to find a central hidden meaning [like so many before him] in all myths from all cultures."

When Carl Jung (1875-1961), Freud's protégé and associate, carried the psychological component further, delving into what he called the collective unconscious to find the primary source of the muse, even Freud backed off. But Jungian disciples from many disciplines began to discover the Greek pantheon.

In 1992 Clarissa Pinkola Estes wrote about the "wild woman" archetype in Women Who Run with the Wolves. Jean Shinoda Bolen popularized Jungian archetypes stemming from the Greek pantheon that were to be found in Everywoman and Everyman. It became an "in" thing at cocktail parties to know that the 2000 movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? was a retelling of Homer's Odyssey. And you could "one up" the person next to you if you knew that the mythical concept of water in the moving baptism scene was echoed by the archetypal "flood motif" at the end, signifying the return to the "real" world. Both Mikhail Baryshnikov, the ballet dancer, and Muhammad Ali, the boxer, have been described as representing the Greek mythical archetypes of "the Dancer," "the Lover," and "the Warrior." In short, Greek themes in popular culture as well as academia are pervasive.

So how does one enter the rich, instructive, convoluted world of the Greek pantheon known as classical mythology? Perhaps the easiest way to begin is with a Greek genealogy—a family tree, so to speak.

In the beginning, there was chaos, also called the void. Out of this void, Gaia (Mother Earth) materialized. She gave birth to the mountains and the sea, and also to Uranus, the sky, who became her husband.

Gaia and Uranus began bringing forth children. First came three monstrous creatures called Hecatoncheires. They each had fifty heads and a hundred arms. Next came three Cyclopes (the plural of Cyclops), each having only one big eye in the middle of its forehead. Finally came twelve Titans, who embodied all that was beautiful in the universe.

Uranus was proud of the Titans, but he feared the ferociousness of the first two sets of triplets. So he imprisoned the Cyclopes and Hecatoncheires in Tartarus, deep caves far beneath the surface of the earth.

Gaia, as any mother would be at the loss of her children, was heartbroken. She appealed to the Titans for aid. Only one, Cronos, was brave enough to help. Arming himself with a sickle, he lay in wait to attack his father. When Uranus came to lay with Gaia, Cronos attacked him and cut off his genitals, thus emasculating his father. (This image, by the way, is recalled each new year. Cronos, from where we get "time" words such as "chronometer" and "chronological," is pictured each January as "Father Time," marching off with his sickle.)

But Cronos decided not to free his entrapped brothers. They frightened even him. So Gaia was no better off. To make matters worse, Cronos was so afraid of competition that he took to swallowing each of the babies born to his new wife/sister, the Titan Rhea. (Again comes the image of time eventually "swallowing" all things.) When the sixth baby was born, a young child called Zeus, Rhea tricked Cronos into swallowing a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes. Zeus was smuggled in secret to the island of Crete, where he grew to adulthood.

Eventually, learning of the fate of his brothers, he prepared a powerful potion that he tricked Cronos into drinking. Cronos vomited up his swallowed children, who were now seen to have become magnificent adults. They began a war of retaliation with their father, Cronos. It lasted for centuries and almost destroyed the universe. In the end, it seemed as though Zeus was going to be defeated. But he finally gained victory by traveling alone into the underworld, releasing the fearsome Hecatoncheires and Cyclopes, who took his side in the war, eventually defeating the Titan army.

Jean Shinoda Bolen, in Gods in Everyman, tells how the spoils were divided:

After their victory, the three brother-gods—Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades—drew lots to divide the universe among them. Zeus won the sky, Poseidon the sea, and Hades the underworld. Although the earth and Mt. Olympus were supposedly shared territory, Zeus came to extend his rule over this terrain. (The three sisters had no property rights, consistent with the patriarchal Greek culture.)

Through his sexual liaisons, Zeus fathered the next generation of deities, as well as the demigods, who were the larger-than-life heroes of mythology. And while he actively begot children, he too, like his father before him, felt threatened by the possibility that a son would overthrow him. There was a prophecy that Metis, the first of his seven consorts, would give birth to two children, one of whom would be a son who would come to rule the gods and men. And so, when she became pregnant, he feared she was pregnant with this son, tricked her into becoming small, and swallowed her in order to abort this birth. As it turned out, the child was not a son, but a daughter—Athena—who eventually was born through Zeus's head.

Later generations, of course, saw the birth of legendary figures such as Oedipus, who killed his father, married his mother, and had a famous complex named after him. Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, written about 750 BCE, take us into the very heart of early Greek thinking and may even open a window through which to view actual historical events.

The question now becomes, what do we do with all this? What does it mean? There are at least three different traditional approaches to studying and interpreting Greek mythology.

Greek Myth As Western Cultural History

This view attempts to read history between the lines of the stories. The original inhabitants of Europe and Greece originally consisted of a stone-age culture of the type represented by goddess/Gaia-worshiping peoples found around the world. But with the Indo-European invasion (see Aryans; Hinduism), the patriarchal system began, represented by the Titans and their overthrow by the Olympians. Gaia, "Mother Earth," was replaced. Male gods, headed by Zeus, the warrior, prevailed. The "sky gods," patriarchal male figures who resided on mountaintops such as Olympus, often came down to Earth to take human wives. "Virgin births" were common—a union of the "Father god" with a human maiden. But the gods were primarily "up there" somewhere, and they needed to be appeased, most often by sacrifices. They certainly didn't have the intimacy common to the nurturing Mother Earth goddess. They were known to be treacherous and not to be trusted. Mostly, they were distant.

In short, the historical reading of Greek mythology is seen to represent the overthrow of matriarchal planters by patriarchal warriors, a process that is supported by considerable archaeological evidence. With the advent of the Indo-Europeans came the building of walled cities and implements of war. This perspective sets historical events upon the mythological stage and views history through a religious lens. "Our god against your god" is, even today, a common device used to justify wars of aggression.

Greek Myth As Human Psychology

The Greek gods and goddesses demonstrated unique traits evidenced in human psychological types, often called archetypes. Zeus, for instance, represents the CEO. Hermes is the marketing genius. Dionysus (the Roman Bacchus—see Alcohol) is the mystic and lover. Ares is the football linebacker. On and on the list goes, identifying every human personality with a member of the pantheon. By studying the gods and reading their stories, people often find religious/psychological clues to their personalities and discover ways to understand why they are the way they are and why they feel the way they feel.

Greek Myth As Morality Tale

England has good King Arthur. America, truthful George Washington and "Honest Abe" Lincoln. Greece had its heroes, too. "The face that launched a thousand ships," that of Helen of Troy, began the battle for Troy and involved gods who used to walk the earth alongside human warriors. They are great tales, and a child could do worse than to emulate the stalwart Ajax or the wise Penelope as they deal with forces greater than themselves. Seen in this light, the Greek gods offer ethical examples (sometimes good, sometimes bad) a whole lot more exciting than Washington chopping down a cherry tree and then admitting it. Many generations of children were raised on these tales.

In summary, the Greek gods and goddesses of classical mythology were the religious foundation of those who began Western civilization. Read at many levels, their stories cannot be discounted. They are not nearly as familiar as they once were, but their influence cannot be underestimated. It is safe to say that without them, civilization would look different. The people on whose shoulders Western civilization stands called forth the pantheon, either from the cosmos or their own psyches. The gods may be gone from Olympus, but their stories resonate today.

A wonderful Star Trek episode, "Who Weeps for Adonis," pictures the ancient Greek gods as visitors to planet Earth from outer space. No longer worshiped by humans, one by one they take flight to greener pastures. Adonis, the last god, interviews Captain Kirk, who presumes to speak for all people on the planet when he says, "We have no need of gods. The One is sufficient." And Adonis flies away.

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