Greek Gods, Human Lives
Suffering and hardship cannot be avoided; death is inevitable; virtue is not always rewarded. Justice may not be done in the short run, although eventually wrongs will be righted, even if many innocent people will suffer. There is no hope of universal redemption, no sense that in the future the victims of the terrible action of the drama will receive any recompense for their suffering.
Why should mortals worship gods who offer them so few benefits? Perhaps the most important reason is that they are powerful; they can change their shape in a moment; they can cover distances in seconds that would take men days or weeks. They live in comfort and health in a perfect climate, while mortals struggle with harsh conditions and constant change. Mortals need help from the gods if they hope to accomplish anything, but the gods need them only to give honor. They did not create humankind, and after the Trojan War they do not visit humans as often as they did in the age of the heroes. That is why mortals must look back at the age of the heroes, when the children of gods were still on earth, to appreciate the full potential of what the gods might be willing to do on our behalf.
Mortals also learn from the myths that they cannot control what happens to them. Certain events are determined by fate. Even Zeus, the greatest of the gods, cannot rescue his son Sarpedon from the battlefield at Troy when he wants to. Some mortals must work and fight to secure a future for their descendants. Aeneas must found Rome even though, as he says, it is not of his own free will that he seeks Italy (Aeneid 4.361). Other mortals are forced to suffer for a crime committed by an ancestor in the distant past. When Oedipus learned from the oracle that he would kill his father and marry his mother, he brought the dire prediction to fulfillment even as he was trying to prevent it. Gods persecute some mortals for deeds done by their ancestors or their relations. Because she is angry at Zeus for falling in love with Alcmena, Hera sees to it that Heracles does not become ruler over the Argives (Iliad 19.121-24). Only at the end of the Aeneid does Juno agree to stop persecuting Aeneas and the remaining Trojans.
But even within the confines of their fate, mortals still have choices. Hector might have prolonged his life by taking the advice of Poulydamas and retreating behind the walls of Troy. Odysseus did not need to steal food from the cave of the Cyclops. He did not need to tell the Cyclops his real name, and he did not need to put on his armor and challenge Scylla. Thus the myths encourage a deep piety, along with a determination to seek in any venture the acquiescence and support of the gods. Odysseus suffers when he pays insufficient attention to the warnings given him by the gods, but he is rewarded in the end because of his piety. The myths teach us that mortals must struggle to appreciate and understand the advice the gods choose to give them. Odysseus, after he returns to Ithaca, realizes that he must always be on the alert for signals from Zeus and Athena so that he can do what they want him to do, when they want him to do it. The idea that one must be ever watchful and responsive to the wishes of the gods does not change over time. The fifth-century lyric poet Pindar asks Apollo 'to look with kind intention upon all my goings according to a harmony' (Pythian Odes 8.67-69). Similar messages are conveyed in the narratives of Apollonius, Callimachus, and Virgil. Aeneas is terrified when Mercury comes to find him in Carthage and quickly prepares to carry out Jupiter's commands (Aeneid 4.279-82).
Ancient writers use myths as a means of reminding humans of the severe limitations imposed on them by the conditions of mortality, and the many dangers present in the world they inhabit. They use the myths to explain that living with gods like these requires patience, restraint, and forbearance. The last thing the Greek gods and their Roman counterparts seem to offer mortals is instant gratification, or the kind of response that would bring them a sense of lasting contentment. Ancient writers seem to be saying that life cannot be any easier for their audiences than it was for the greatest of heroes, who were the children of the gods themselves or their descendants.
As we have seen, some people in antiquity sought to reject the myths. The myths, they argued, required people to believe in fantastic animals and feats of strength that defied reason. Some objected strongly to the immorality of myths about gods committing what in the mortal world would be considered crimes. But in the end, I believe, what caused people to abandon the traditional mythology was not the many fantasies it contains, but rather its ultimate realism: the myths show a world full of evil forces, unpredictable change, difficult conditions, and inevitable death and defeat. By contrast, other religions offered security, and a promise of redemption and reward both in this life and after death. Isis appears to come when Lucius calls on her. She claims that she is called by many different names: in Phrygia she is the Mother of the Gods, in Athens Minerva, in Cyprus Venus, and so on (Apuleius, Metamorphoses 11.5.2-3). An ancient Egyptian would not be surprised if one god assumed the identity of another. But to an ancient Greek or Roman, such a statement would be remarkable: by saying that she is in reality all the other goddesses, she removes much of the uncertainty presented by a world occupied by many competing divinities. She offers a control and security that the traditional religion, in all its diversity, simply could not provide. She has a plan, and oversees mortal existence; she communicates consistent instructions through her dreams and her priests. All Lucius needs to do is follow her orders, or those of her priests, and he will have a happy life in this world and be a king among the dead in the Elysian Fields (ii.6.6). Lucius appears to be satisfied with this new existence, which contrasts so vividly with the life he has led before his metamorphosis. But as Apuleius tells the story, we are left wondering if this security, this antidote to the traditional religion, is not itself an illusion.
In contrast with the structured existence described in the last book of Apuleius's Metamorphoses, the world portrayed in the traditional myths is full of uncertainties and surprises. It is assumed that no mortal can avoid suffering, that any human being is continually at the mercy of forces beyond his or her control, and that the dead (even the great heroes of the past) lead a shadowy existence in the underworld. The gods in the traditional myths can suddenly bring evil into human life, even if they have previously been favorably inclined. It may seem strange to those of us who have been raised in one of the great monotheistic traditions to have gods who can be both beneficent and hostile, and who can work at cross-purposes as well as in concert. But the ancient Greek understanding of divinity has the great advantage of allowing mortals to display their humanity: in the face of the implacable rage of Dionysus at the end of Euripides' Bacchae, Cadmus and his daughter Agave reach out and comfort each other; at the end of the Iliad Achilles tells Priam about the two jars on Zeus's threshold, from which men can draw either a mixture of good and evil, or all evil, in their lives. But a god that is all good, like Isis, takes away from humans the best qualities of their humanity, and arrogates them to herself: 'I am here because I pity your sufferings; I am here bestowing favor, and with blessings' (11.5.4).
The traditional myths provide, with their combination of realism and fantasy, a way to understand why it is that disasters will strike, often when we are least expecting them, or that great prosperity cannot last, especially if it is acquired through dishonest means, or that we will not always see justice done in our life-times. This way of looking at the world made sense in the eighth century B.C. and the second century A.D. Despite the doubts about the gods expressed by the philosophers and by poets like Ovid, the old traditions continued to be observed. The Greeks and Romans used the myths as a means of understanding how the world worked, and the place of human beings in a universe that was created neither for nor by themselves. Homer was read everywhere in the Greek-speaking world and was still used as a guide for religious observance in the early centuries A.D.