By Christian Meier
Hesiod and Homer brought order to the world of the gods for the Greeks, describing their genealogical connections, allocating honours, powers, and areas of responsibility among them, and giving them distinct appearances. This is how Herodotus put it.
Every city revered its own particular divinities. Most gods are attested already in the Mycenaean period, while others were ‘discovered’ in the fields and woods or via encounters in the Orient. In emergency situations, the oracle at Delphi might recommend that communities establish cults devoted to this or that divinity. The power of the gods could be experienced, and they needed to be honoured everywhere. Although we have no way of reconstructing the precise details, even the priests at Delphi made a great effort to show proper devotion to Dionysus, who represented the exact opposite of Apollo.
Many of the gods were common to all Greeks: countless communities, for example, considered Athena Polias the protectress of the city. But other gods appeared only in specific places. One of the most stunning of the surviving Greek temples is the one of the otherwise unknown goddess Aphaea on the island of Aegina.
Homer described the small circle of Olympic gods, which consisted of Zeus’ immediate family, and Greek communities tended to adapt to them their own divinities, which often had marked peculiarities. These might be expressed in the gods’ epithets. In addition, there were more than a few other deities that were often also common to many Greek poleis. They include Hestia (the goddess of the hearth) and Themis (the goddess of customary law), who was honoured in close conjunction with the goddess of the earth, her mother Gē or Gaia.
Just as Poseidon controlled the seas, Zeus the weather, and Hades the underworld, Artemis was responsible for hunting, Zeus’ wife Hera for marriage, Aphrodite for love, and Hephaestus (together with Athena Ergane) for handicrafts. Hermes kept a protective watch over trade although he was also the god of thieves, Demeter over grain and harvest, and Dionysus was the god of wine and, later, the theatre. But divine ‘responsibilities’ often exceeded the boundaries of the gods’ core identities. Among other functions, Apollo brought assistance and health, and his son Asclepius was the god of medicine. Special characteristics were often indicated in the ancillary names (epithets) many gods were given. Zeus Xenios was the god to whom Greeks could pray when abroad and appealing to the rules of hospitality; Zeus Hikesios was the god of suppliants, and Zeus Agoraios the god enabling agreement in the political arena of the agoras.
The Greeks saw or at least suspected the influence of higher forces everywhere, and they sought to identify, name, and characterize divinities in order to ask for favours, to swear oaths, make vows and sacrifices, and express their gratitude as well. Poets honoured the friendly muses. Impulses and effects were credited to divine forces. The attic community of Rhamnus in the fifth century BC devoted a grand temple to Nemesis, who represented retribution and just anger (in reaction to inappropriate actions). Themis stood for custom and enactment. She regulated Greek social life and ordered the popular assemblies where citizens deliberated and made common decisions.
The entire uncertainty and difficulty in understanding what people experience seems to have led to the postulation of forces that soon coalesced into easily visualized images of divinities. And because the gods were conceived as real beings, in the words of Richard Harder, they had ‘to contain within them also deep-seated experiences of real-life cruelty and crass deception’.
We do not know to what extent people in real life believed in the supernatural powers of the gods as conceived by the poets, but it is likely that Greek literature, with all its vivid imagination, mirrored the tangible everyday Greek reality of a world subject to incalculable external factors, comprising everything from the weather to poetic grace and the success of political order. They experienced such factors, for instance, in the surprising energy of men going off to battle, as well as the utter desperation in which people, for whatever reason, occasionally find themselves. Greeks could not even be certain of how they themselves or their friends and enemies would behave. Their tendency to say that people’s dispositions depended on the type of day that Zeus brought forth was probably more than just a colourful way of suggesting that people sometimes get out of bed the wrong way. Rather, it expressed the experience of being subjected to imponderables which could neither be controlled nor avoided, but which one wanted to confront in order to articulate it.
By the eighth century at the latest, the Greeks found all aspects of life beyond the procurement of basic necessities (and sometimes even there) to be influenced by a high degree of flux. Happiness alternated with misery, profit with loss, rise with fall. There was only a limited amount of security to be had, and life was particularly fraught with danger for those who did not restrict themselves to living within certain limits.
Political authorities and priests were hardly able to make people feel that conditions of life were steady and reliable. Nor were they capable of controlling and regulating access to divine powers. Greek ideas about the gods were formed not by them but by the poets and singers, respected men who travelled freely among cities, followed specific pan-Hellenic and broadly accepted standards, and thus were able to shape and expand Greek myth—independently of whatever happened to be the rituals of any particular place. But the fact that the divine cosmos they depict is the only one that remains accessible to us does not mean that individuals and communities did not have their own ideas about the gods.
In any case, the dominant and undeniable impression of the unpredictability of the gods could not be limited or pushed aside; rather, it was openly—one might even say, realistically and humbly—accepted and captured in words and images. As concrete and direct as their social life in small poleis was, the Greeks still had a keen sensitivity for all that lay beyond what they could see, touch, and form. The divine world was a realm of fantasies, wishes, and fears, but also a sphere of free thinking. Precisely because Greeks had every reason to be keen observers, they must also have been very conscious of the boundaries of what was perceptible and calculable. Hence, their fundamental questions had to be directed beyond such limitations.
The above post is an excerpt from Christian Meier’s latest book A Culture of Freedom: Ancient Greece and the Origins of Europe. Meier is one of the foremost classical historians of his generation and the author of numerous books, both on the classical world and in the sphere of cultural history. He was formerly Chairman of the Association of German Historians and President of the German Academy for Language and Literature in Darmstadt. In 2003 he received the prestigious Jacob Grimm prize for German Literature.