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Being human when surrounded by Greek gods, by M. J. Lee

July 17, 2011
Pentheus, House of the Vettii, Pompeii

The gods could be both kind and cruel – matching our experience of human nature.  Here, Pentheus is torn apart by god-inspired revelers.

image enhanced from Pentheus, House of the Vettii, Pompeii

This week M. J. Lee takes the marriage of humanism and mythology all the way back to the ancient Greeks.  What was humanism for the Greeks, and how does it show up in the works of one of their greatest playwrights, Euripides?

The center of the world for the ancient Greeks was Delphi, and at the entrance to the Delphian Temple of Apollo were the words Gnothi Seauton (Know Thyself).  This according to many scholars was a command to remember that one is human, to remember one’s place as a human.1  In its most basic form, humanism is simply the focus on the human, and the Greeks were certainly focused on this as can be seen in their art, literature, philosophy and also their religion.

Many people see humanism as opposed to traditional religion, and in fact use humanism as a synonym for atheism.  Humanism is seen as the rejection and replacement of God with the human, who then becomes the center of interest and the source of values and ethics.  The history of humanism is often begun with the ancient Greek philosophers and Sophists, who we are told questioned and rejected the traditional view of the gods.  Evidence for the rejection of religion is also collected from epic and dramatic poetry, where the gods are sometimes portrayed in a less then noble light, and even sometimes comically.  This is especially true of the works of Euripides.

The human in the god

Euripides is one of the three great tragedians from ancient Athens.  He is considered the most “modern” of the three, for questioning the assumptions of his society, for his anti-war stance, and for championing the downtrodden – women, foreigners and slaves.  It is often difficult, if not impossible, to discern what Euripides’ own position might have been on the issues he raises, and this is especially true in the realm of religion.  Many scholars, particularly from previous generations, have found his portrayal of the gods so negative that they thought he must be making fun of religion, showing people how foolish conventional beliefs were.  This may be so, but that is not the only way to read him.  I think in many ways he gives an old-fashioned, archaic view of the gods.2

Euripides’ last and most famous play is the Bacchae.  In the Bacchae, Dionysus returns to the place of his birth, Thebes, to establish his cult, but he is met with resistance from King Pentheus.  Pentheus refuses to recognize the divinity of Dionysus and tries to prohibit his worship, this running wild of decent women, wives and mothers.  To punish Pentheus for his arrogance, Dionysus has the women of Thebes in their Bacchic madness tear Pentheus limb from limb as if he were a wild beast, after which Agave, Pentheus’ own mother, leads a triumphal procession with her son’s head on a stake.  It is during this procession that Agave comes back to her senses and realizes with horror and disgust what she has done.

What are we to think of this god Dionysus?  If one sees the gods as conscious, supernatural people, then the Dionysus of the Bacchae can only be seen as the worst monster, for only a monster would force a mother to kill and dismember her child.  If one thinks that gods are supposed to be good, to care about and for humans, then one will find much amiss with Euripides’ gods.   It is clear that many of the ancient Greeks did come to believe the gods were supposed to be perfectly good and just stewards of humanity, and therefore became increasingly uncomfortable with the old myths of amoral gods.

If one defines a god as that which is perfect, perfectly good, perfectly wise, perfectly just, then it seems perfectly clear that there are no such gods, or at least none that take an active interest in us.  But these are not the gods of Homer, Hesiod or Euripides.  The gods that they portray are both kind and cruel; they are in fact capricious.  This to me seems more realistic, for this is what matches our experience of nature, not just the nature outside ourselves, but also our own nature, our un-chosen instinctual nature.  Sometimes the earth is a gentle, pleasant place, with sweet fruits ripe for the taking, and sometimes it is not.

Sick Bacchus, by Caravaggio

The gods encapsulate human experience, for good or ill, as in this unflattering portrait of the god Dionysus.

image enhanced from Sick Bacchus, by Caravaggio

The god in the human

The gods are for me metaphors for nature, or more precisely the names, images and stories are metaphors, allegories and archetypes of our relationship with nature.  I see the gods – the names, images, stories – as the poetic encapsulation of our human experience, our relationship with the ineffable forces that shape human life.  While this makes the gods no thing, it does not make them nothing.  I see the gods as representing very real, powerful, even dangerous forces.  I believe the gods are real.  It doesn’t matter what we call them or don’t call them.  They are real and dangerous, and we will contend with them.  This for me is the message of the Bacchae.

In the Bacchae, I believe Euripides was warning the men of Athens that to ignore a god like Dionysus can bring disaster.  Let us not forget that for a woman, the ancient world was a repressive place.  The only time a “respectable” woman may have left her home was to participate in religious rites.  The Bacchae was written at a time when attitudes about the gods were changing, and no doubt many patriarchs would have preferred to ignore gods like Dionysus and keep their women at home and in their control.  Better by far to be like Cadmus, Pentheus’ aged grandfather, and show proper reverence.  Cadmus, conscious of his status as a human, accepts straightaway the divinity of Dionysus and goes to join the Bacchic revelry.  Human beings can’t be in control of everything all the time.  Better to show proper reverence for gods like Dionysus, to allow a safe outlet for those forces which if bottled up too tight can be explosive.

The Dionysus of Athens was Dionysus Eleuthereus (The One Who Sets Free).  He was the giver of ecstasy, which literally means “standing outside of oneself,” and those activities which cause this – wine, drama, dancing – were under his patronage.  There is a time for working hard and a time for letting go.  What I like so much about polytheism is how almost every aspect of life on some level participates in the sacred.  There seems to be literally a deity for everything.  I see the purpose of religion as the cultivation of reverence, the development of right relationship with self, community and the world.3  It seems to me that we need if not gods, then something like them, to be the focus of this reverence, to encapsulate this “right relationship”.

I can’t leave the topic of Euripides without commenting on his play Heracles.  In this play, Heracles on returning home from his labors is made mad by Hera, who of course does not like Heracles because he is a bastard son of Zeus.  In his madness, Heracles kills his wife and children.  When Heracles returns to sanity and sees the carnage of his family, he is devastated to say the least.  In the traditional tale, Heracles, a mortal son of god, is made fully divine, but in this story he is made fully human.  No god comes to save Heracles; instead it is the love of his father and especially the friendship of Theseus which redeems him.

Know thyself

Euripides’ Heracles brings us back to the place of the human.  I think cultivating respect and reverence for nature, both the nature outside and inside ourselves, is very important, but in the end it is not the place of nature, of the gods, to save us, to give our lives meaning or purpose.  I believe that what gives our lives meaning, what redeems us, is philia, human love and friendship.  Knowing this is part of knowing what it means to be human, Gnothi Seauton (Know Thyself).  Greek humanism was not about rejecting the gods and elevating humans to that place, but was rather about understanding the place of the human and the god, and giving to each the credit and honor that was due.4

Notes

1.  For the conventional interpretation of Gnothi Seauton, see Elizabeth Vandiver’s Teaching Company course, Classical Mythology, Lecture 9 (http://www.thegreatcourses.com) and Donald Kagan’s Open Yale Course, Introduction to Ancient Greek History, Lecture 1 (available for free at http://oyc.yale.edu/classics/introduction-to-ancient-greek-history/content/sessions/session-1-introduction).  Donald Kagan also gives a wonderful summary of the Greek view of human nature.

2. An interesting article on the evolution of gods is available from the Friasan School at http://www.friesian.com/god.htm. At the end of this page is an essay on Euripides.

3. For a wonderful exploration of reverence and its importance in Greek society see Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue by Paul Woodruff (Oxford University Press, 2001).  Woodruff discusses the Bacchae in several places, most notably on pages 94-97, 128-32 and 210-11.

4. Jon D. Mikalson in Ancient Greek Religion (Blackwell Publishing, 2005) examines the Greek view of the place of the human and divine based on actual temple dedication.  On this he says, “The thousands of dedications in the hundreds of Greek sanctuaries are certainly expressions of gratitude to the deities, but they are equally monuments of human achievement and usually the human achievement is given considerably more emphasis than the deity’s contribution” (page 159).  In his book Athenian Popular Religion (University of North Carolina Press, 1983) he sums up the Athenian attitude about divine intervention as, “In simple terms, opportunities came from the gods.  It was up to the human being to make the best of them.  If he was successful, he praised and thanked the gods.  If he failed, he faulted, if not himself, a daimon or fortune” (page 62).  We might say the same thing about nature and chance.

The author

M. J. Lee

M. J. Lee

M. J. Lee was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, where she first discovered her love of Greek myth among the dusty books at local universities.  It was the gods and spirits of wild places that especially captured her heart, and M. J. went on to earn a B.S. in Wildlife Science from Louisiana Tech and a M.S. in Plant Ecology from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.  It was this training in science and critical thinking along with her enduring fascination with myth and mysticism that shaped her into a naturalistic pagan.  M. J. currently lives in west Tennessee with her husband and works as an environmental consultant.  She spends her free time enjoying nature, dancing and indulging her Hellenomania.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. July 24, 2011 4:22 am

    As soon as I noticed this internet site I went on reddit to share some of the love with them. “A sect or party is an elegant incognito devised to save a man from the vexation of thinking.” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

  2. July 31, 2011 6:06 pm

    Wonderfully clear. And when I saw M. J. Lee is from New Orleans, well, that’s a nice bonus. Greeting from the Crescent City!

  3. September 6, 2011 12:04 am

    Lovely post! Thank you! I’m currently in the process of reading Woodruff’s book, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, and I love how he discusses the Greek fear of forgetting their humanity both by acting like a god or acting like a wild animal, both of which you refer to above. And your idea of reverencing forces larger than ourselves (whether it is Nature or our own animal natures), even if they are not benevolent, in order to better know our place in this world is excellent.

    • September 6, 2011 7:28 am

      Thanks for pointing that out, Angelina. I have Woodruff’s book on my shelf but I haven’t quite gotten to it yet. Perhaps I should bump it up on the priority list. :-)

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