Sunday, October 28, 2012

Zeus and the Polis

The Polis, a word that means city, was a central part of the organizing force in Greek culture. The Greeks became a "civilized" people, civilized referring to the act of creating civil order, cities, governments, etc., and in so doing the growing cities became central to the way they developed as a culture because their power and influence grew over the centuries in such a way that Greek culture became almost indistinguishable from the very concept of the Polis. 

To think of the Greeks simply as a people of the Polis, however, is a huge mistake. As modern people we seldom have a chance to understand the realities of how the Polis worked, and how the population of Greece must have adapted to suit the growing power of these states, not because we don't know anything about the Polis, we do, quite a bit, but rather because the works of art, fiction, myth, philosophy left behind by the ancient Greeks were very much centered upon the Polis, which became a place where artists and thinkers went in an effort to work their talents where the money was (or the resources of the time) but the population of Greece was very heavily a rural population. The people of the countryside remain, often misrepresented in modern academic works, and for many, the Polis and the way it was organized was the center of all Greek life, including religion.  

We know that among the cults of the Gods among the Greeks, the Hearth Cult was one of the earliest, and that this is reflected in myth when Hestia, the Goddess of the Hearth, is named as the first born child of Kronos. When she is called the Eldest and Youngest, the first and the last, something that is reflected in ritual as well. But what does this say to us today? Since the cult of the Hearth is, essentially, a civilized cult, it cannot really have been a cult from the beginning of humanity, or even the beginnings of the Greeks as a people, but rather a cult that was established as people were already gathering into towns and building the fortress towns that would become the homes of the Mycenaean Kings. Add to that that the Minoans already built palaces, and we are looking at a cult that was part of the Polis structure. 

But the Greeks also had a myth of a different kind, the myth of Prometheus and his gift of fire to humanity. If Prometheus stole fire from Zeus to give to man, then man must have needed to preserve it, and this gift of fire was not something that came late, but rather early. So, perhaps this cult of the Hearth is not a cult of the Polis after all, but a cult that comes from the early folk, and perhaps travelled with the people way into the past, long before there were Greeks or Mycenaeans, or Minoans, for all of these people used fire, all of them had received the gift of Prometheus and Hestia. 

What is all this rambling about?

Well, when considering Zeus, and the other Gods, it is important to consider where the stories of the Gods come from and, perhaps, why, and many of the stories told of the Gods, fanciful and beautiful as they are, are shadows of older stories, reflections of our history and the interactions with the Gods that our long lost ancestors managed in those dark times. But also, that these stories were never static. They changed and were made more fanciful, or more down to earth, by succeeding generations. Generations that experienced and understood the Gods in new ways. And many of these people, one can say most, were not people of the cities. Not civilized folk in the conventional sense. 

We must, when considering the Gods, try to put their stories in a broader context than just the Polis and remember that the Gods are not just Gods of civilization, poetry, and art, but also Gods of the wild and dark places.

Yes, we pagans have a love of connecting the Gods with nature, but it is important that we not forget that nature can be a cruel and unforgiving thing, and that the powers that be do not act for our benefit, but for the benefit of all things. That the religion of the Gods was not simply the religion of the Polis and its organized festivals designed to garner their favor, but the religion of the lesser known people, the people of the fields, the forests, and the wilderness at large. A people who understood that Zeus as the thunderstorm could kill as easily as rain down much needed rain, and that they did not hate or blame him for such, but rather understood that, perhaps, they were not the center of the universe or the center of Zeus' concerns. 

Still, the Greeks did build cities, cities of magnificent achievement in art and thought,  and if we must seek to remember that the Gods are also the Gods of the country folk, we must never forget that they were also Gods of the cities, where they encouraged through their worship the flowering of European civilization, and that for this, we must be eternally grateful. 

Monday, October 22, 2012


God. It is a word filled with meaning, both subtle and blunt, and in our Judaeo-Christian culture it has taken on the form of a proper name, which of course, it is not. But the concept that we know as God is certainly not a new one, nor a unique one, for it is found in the philosophies of ancient pagans, of Hindus, Buddhists, and Shinto philosophers.

In our own religion, the religion of the ancient Greek pagans, the God who comes closest to this conception, of a deity as all powerful and all knowing, is Zeus, and it is Zeus and his iconography, imagery, etc., that gives form to the otherwise nebulous figure of the Jewish YHWH, for the religion of the Christians owes an enormous amount to the imagery and iconography of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The image of God as a man, older, bearded, kingly, sitting on the throne of heaven is quite literally the same image as that of Zeus on the throne of Olympus. The anthropomorphizing of Jehovah, which as a transliteration of the word YHWH has a remarkable similarity to the word Jove, the Roman name for Zeus (though to be fair the two words are technically unrelated), is essentially Zeus layered over with Jehovan iconography and myth.

The Greeks understood Zeus to be the God of Gods, father of Gods and men, the king of kings. In so understanding him, in so invoking him, they elevated his status in their religion to one of near omnipotence and omniscience, two divine aspects not shared by his fellow gods, or even by him in the myths of the Greeks, yet of all the Gods, Zeus was the Greek God par excellence, the pan-hellenic deity that was unmistakably the Lord of the Greeks.

I say they elevated him because this is not about whether a God is or is not these things, but rather about how he was worshiped and understood by his worshipers. It is these qualities that the ancients passed on to us, this notion of Zeus as an immense being who is the God of Gods, so it is this that I, and anyone else wishing to worship or honor him, must contend with.

To understand this aspect of Zeus one must understand how the Greeks came to worship their Gods, how the Pantheon they worshiped was organized, and how that organization mirrored old aristocratic ideas of rule, order, and a manifest destiny that some classes of people felt was their inherent right.

Zeus, you see, is a God who is worshiped not as a child born to rule, though he was son of the previous ruler, but one who fought his way to the top. In this he is very much a reflection of society. The Greek culture came into being in Greece not by being born to it, but through successive waves of migration, often called invasions, in which a war like people from the North and East entered what is known as Greece and through the course of centuries gained control from whatever people were there before them, and whatever powers were exerting control over these regions. But like Zeus who must enter the world and then fight his way to the top by battling out with his father, the Greeks must also fight, among themselves and against those who would usurp their growing cultural influence and power.

One could argue that the great disaster that weakened the Minoan culture such that it could easily be taken over by the Mycenaeans (Greeks) that followed was an act of divine war. As the Greeks were growing in power Kronos was battling it out with Zeus, and as they took over the reborn Gods (regurgitated by Kronos) were battling it out with the Titans for control of the universe. This is not exactly how my theology would explain this, but it is an argument for how the myths explain the emergence of a powerful pantheon of Gods that would lead the Greek people to a flowering of culture and philosophy seldom seen in the world.

Zeus wins this war, and soon he sits at the very throne of Heaven, and so he embarks on an orgy of marriage, marrying the local goddesses and producing offspring with them. The religions of the old people merging with the religions of the new and new and various aspects of the Gods emerging as the people adopted and adapted new forms of worship, new iconographies, new myths. What was once two people struggling for control became one, and the Gods of the more powerful of them became the Gods of all, as they married and merged with the local forms and aspects.

Zeus was now father of Gods and men, and he usurped whatever creation myth may have been present, becoming the instigator of the creation of man.

See, Zeus isn't just a deity, he is the deity into which the people of ancient Greece poured their wonderfully active spirit. He represents not only their belief in powers higher than themselves, but a belief that their history, reflected in his, has value and is, in a way, sacred. This is not to say that Zeus is simply an abstraction of that spirit of the people, no, the Greeks saw him as much more than that, as a force of nature, as an immanent power felt by all, breathed in and out by all, motivating and animating them to action and feats of great skill both on the battlefield and on the racing track. They saw him as omnipresent in the way the air around you is omnipresent because he was, to them, the very sky itself. He was the sky father.

In this immensity and all pervasive cultural influence, Zeus is very much like the modern conceptions of the Judaeo-Christian God, or perhaps even more so like the all pervasive Brahman of the Hindu religious sphere. A God who is so immense in scope and power that he is everywhere you are at all time. He is around you and in you, and therefore very difficult to come to grips with. Meditating on Zeus becomes difficult when one seeks to understand all of him, and so we are grateful, i think, to the aspected forms the Greeks spoke of in their writings and myths. It was not necessary then, nor is it necessary now, to believe you know Zeus in his entirety. That might even be considered Hubris. It is, however, okay to be intimately and expertly knowledgeable about Zeus in one of his many aspects and to do him honor as such.

So it is that I choose a couple of aspects of Zeus to venerate in my life. The father, for I have none to speak of and so he is it, the sky lord, for the beauty of the thunderstorm is something I have always admired, and that of Zeus as watcher of men.

It is these I hope to explore as I move forward.