Monday, November 19, 2007

Classical Mythology, Part I: The Gods

(I may or may not have said that “Mythology in the Third Age” is the next topic. I got a bit ahead of myself and need to run through a few things first...) My all-time favorite professor (and there are several possibilities for that title, especially if we count teachers at my community college as professors for semantic purposes) is a professor of Greek and Roman antiquities. He hates the word “very.” It’s too general, too meaningless. In 491, the class wherein we spent an entire semester on our final research paper, he reminded us on a regular basis that if we used the word “very” in a paper, we’d better have a good reason. Very, you see, is a word that is far too vague in most cases where it’s used. If I were, for instance, to attempt to tell you that the Roman Army was better than all other armies before it and said, “The Romans were very good at training and equipping men for war,” that would tell you nothing, especially in comparison to other armies. If I were to recommend a book to you, saying, “It’s a very good book,” doesn’t actually add anything useful to the simpler statement of, “It’s a good book.” You would need something more, something to describe that “very,” like, “The writing is strong and the author makes well-supported arguments.” If we used the word “very” in any of the papers we wrote over the course of the semester without being able to justify it, he marked us down. This was a known fact from the very beginning. During the History 320: Ancient Greece course I took with him, he introduced the Greek pantheon thusly: “The Greek gods were anthropomorphic. You could, in fact, say that they were very anthropomorphic.” I didn’t really know it at the time, but his use of the word “very” should have tipped me off that he meant what he said. The Greek gods all had human characteristics. They looked like humans, thought like humans, held grudges like humans, and meddled in the affairs of the world for stupid reasons just like humans. Yet they all had at least one over exaggerated characteristic that would come up in the various tales built around them. This was the root of the “very anthropomorphic” descriptor. The gods are like us. But they aren’t. Not because they can shoot fire or fly or whatever, but because the gods have moods they take to an extreme mere people could never possibly achieve. It is in these extremes, however, that the gods hold their value as teachers. This tendency towards very anthropomorphic gods also doesn’t seem to be limited to a Greco-Roman context, although that particular discussion is going to have to hold for another day, as my useable knowledge base beyond Greek/Roman and Norse Mythology is limited and I’d probably embarrass myself. The greatness of mythology can be found in the overly anthropomorphic nature of the gods. They were so over the top in their passions as to be unbelievable. They were bigger and better than average people in every capacity, yet somehow they managed to lose out and get tricked time and again. They squabbled with each other, further diluting their strength. Stories often came to the point where the gods were forced to turn to humans for help. Sometimes, too, they got bored and traveled the world looking for something to amuse them. Zeus had a Don Juan streak, but had to keep his dalliances from Hera. His attempts to hide his affairs and her attempts to catch him were comical. In a display of vanity, Athena, Aphrodite, and Artemis appeared before Paris and offered him prizes if he decided which one was the most beautiful. Loki, the Norse trickster god, schemed and schemed but usually went a step too far and got his comeuppance. The gods, too, were often shortsighted and managed to make things worse for the people they ruled. The aforementioned beauty contest ended up kicking off the Trojan War. In the Norse myth cycle Freya was promised by everything in the world except for mistletoe to never harm Baldur. Loki used his trickery to get Baldur killed by that most unlikely of sources, ultimately kicking off Ragnarok, the Norse equivalent of Armageddon. And Ragnarok was not the only time the gods brought suffering on themselves. Sometimes the gods’ shortsightedness or failings touched them in a direct and personal way. Herakles (Hercules in Roman myth) killed off his own family in a rage and ended up having to do 10 great labors as penance. Cronos, the titan, ate his own children because of a prophecy that they would one day supplant him. Predictably, one of his children avoided that fate and led a rebellion against Cronos. That child was Zeus and his revenge was terrible. It must be pointed out, though, that not all of the suffering of the gods was due to stupidity. There were times when a god suffered for purely noble reasons. Odin, great leader of the Norse pantheon, was one of the prime examples. He sacrificed an eye at the well of Mimir to receive the ability to see the end of the world, then he hung off the World Tree Yggdrasil for nine days to gain the wisdom to understand how to deal with his knowledge. Of course there is the celebrated tale of Prometheus, who forgot to give man a special ability at the time of creation. He looked down at the pitiful creature and, moved to mercy, offered fire. For this he was forced to spend his life tied to a mountain and have his liver eaten out every day by an eagle, only to have the organ re-grow during the night. Here, too, is another part of the greatness of the myth. The gods suffer human emotions and human shortsightedness, then they suffer just like humans. It was said in ancient Greece that even the gods could not change the threads woven for them by the Fates. They were affected differently, I suppose, by the vagaries of the universe in which they lived, but they were still affected. Zeus had to deal with the consequences of his philandering just as much as Europa, his paramour turned wayward cow. Similarly, to the north Odin gathered the greatest warriors to Valhalla to prepare for the final battle, one which would cost the gods as much as it cost the people. The big question, I suppose, is, “What are we supposed to do with this information?” It’s simple, really. Realize that the fact that the gods of mythology are very anthropomorphic doesn’t take away from any god-likeness. What it does, instead, is it allows us to see in the gods a mirror of ourselves. They exist to teach, after all... Up next: Classical Mythology, Part II: The Heroes

1 comment:

fool for beautiful words said...

Eh, I'm even abusing a post nearly three years old...

The three godesses whose quarrel led to the outbrake of the Troyan War were Aphrodite, Athena and Hera, not Artemis.

It wasn't Prometheus ("forethought") who handed out attributes to the various living creatures, but his brother Epimetheus ("afterthought"), who was the one who later accepted Pandora into his house. And besides fire Prometheus also thought various things to humankind, except for morality and the ground of civilization, the state, which could only come from Zeus.
(On a side note, Prometheus was later released from the Caucasus, because there was the secret only he knew.)