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. 

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