If anyone ever bothers to go through my personal zibaldones (if the word’s unfamiliar, please use the search box for my post on it) they’ll find my personal shorthand. It’s not extensive since I’m a firm believer in explaining things and if I don’t write things out I often can’t decipher what I meant. One of the shorthand marks that I do use is the Greek letter theta. Those who know me will have no trouble guessing that it stands for “God.” Or more appropriately, “theos” the Greek word for God. This particular Indo-European lexeme has a venerable history and appears in such forms as deus, Zeus, and deity. Although in a case such as Zeus it can be used as a personal name, it is, in fact, a title. Somewhat like “president” used to be. And it can be used for any number of divinities.
In the Bible there exists a well-placed concern not to dis the Almighty. God—to use his title—had a temper and was known for not being afraid to show it. Among the Ten Commandments is one not to take God’s name in vain. Scholars argue over what exactly that means, but Judaism, on the ground, had to make decisions about it in a practical way. The best way to avoid divine wrath was never to say the divine name at all. God’s name isn’t “God.” That’s a universal word, applicable to any garden variety divinity. God’s personal name, we think, was Yahweh. To ensure the keeping of the commandment whenever this noun was encountered in the Good Book, the word “Lord” was used. That’s the convention behind Lord in small caps in some Bible translations. If you don’t say the name you can’t break the commandment.
In more recent days, in print culture, a further caution has been introduced. In academic writing it’s common to see “G-d.” I can guess the origins of this convention, but I have to admit that concern can lead to obfuscation. Nowhere does Scripture proclaim that you can’t use the title of the ineffable one. I can’t help but think this is following the conservative tendency to see the use of “God” in exasperation as swearing. The fact that another common swear abbreviates itself as “G. d.” might caution against using this particular combination in an effort to preserve the sanctity of the title. No one ever doubted that Baal was a god—but note the carefully lower case “g”—or for that matter, Mars or Zeus. Or, just to be safe, B-l, M-rs, and Z-s. May I suggest, based on personal experience, that theta might be used instead? But only if referring to the true G-d.
Beautiful. Standing outside in the pre-dawn, looking up at the current alignment of Mars, Jupiter, and Venus in the east, I am struck by their presence. The planets, “wanderers,” were known by the ancients to be gods. Tales were told of how they came to have their places in the sky. For those too busy to look up, Venus alone can take your breath away. After the sun and moon, it is the third brightest natural object in the sky that can be seen on a quotidian basis. It has been brilliant this month, and the peoples of ancient times were fascinated by how this morning and evening star rose high only to flee before the coming of the sun. Myths were built around it. Venus, it is no accident, was associated with the goddess of irresistible beauty. She still is.
Trailing behind is Jupiter. The Roman avatar of Zeus, Jupiter is the king of the gods, but not the brightest. Following Venus, it is the fourth brightest object in the sky, followed by various stars in their unchanging positions. Jupiter seems to be chasing Venus these days. Sometimes I see the two of them cavorting in the light of the moon. The object most desired by the king is no object at all, but a goddess who outshines even the power of the primal deity. And then there’s Mars. Mars lags farther behind, never quite the master of war, at least according to Homer, that he hoped to be. He is nevertheless the consort of Venus, for strong emotions tend to go together.
I glance at my watch and I know I should be headed to the bus stop by now, but I dash inside for the camera. It is a vain hope that I can capture what even these eyes can plainly see. It is a drama acting out in the celestial sphere. Three planets in a neat line, clear as Orion’s belt, within the length of my thumb held at arm’s distance. I can hear the bus rumbling toward the corner, and I know I’ll have to rush, but even as I power-walk to the stop, I keep glancing over my shoulder to catch a few last glimpses of a myth in the making. Is it any wonder that we’ve lost the magic in our lives, when we can’t even take the last moments of darkness to pay tribute to the gods?
When Zeus is taken seriously in the New York Times, even the open minded scratch their heads. It’s not because any of us really believe Zeus is up their hurling thunderbolts, but because anyone would even dare raise the question. Yes, Gary Gutting’s Opinionator article is lighthearted and perhaps even a little cynical, but it does raise serious questions. Did our ancestors believe in the gods with no “proof”? I can’t help but think of the phenomenally expensive video, I Still Worship Zeus. There are, in this day of high technology and low tolerance for non-scientific outlooks, people who continue to believe in Zeus. Well, his name does come from the same root as the old Indo-European word that gives us the Latin Deus, or “God.” And, let’s face it, the stories of the Greek gods can be pretty cool (despite sub-par big screen renditions). But to take any of this seriously…Seriously?
As Gutting points out, some of the great minds of Greek science didn’t question the existence of Zeus. I certainly wouldn’t care to pit my puny wit against that of Plato. Those scientifically minded Greeks, apparently, believed in the gods because of their explanatory value. Too many coincidences and synchronicities and epiphanies suggest something more than meets the eye. We don’t see gods today, so Gutting asks how we know the world hasn’t changed. Now, I take uniformitarianism seriously. It is the basis for geology and much of evolution. Our old, old earth shows no evidence of a sudden change in the way things happen. What is malleable is human interpretation. As recently as a century ago, belief in some kind of divine world was very pervasive. Only in the past few decades—since World War Two, I would guess—has the premise of the Judeo-Christian god become suspect. The daily experience of living in a world where theodicy just can’t explain all the suffering has led us to a kind of stalemate with the gods.
I once had a scholarly exchange with a colleague over the nature of the word “evidence.” Our little tiff was published in the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. My colleague had suggested that Yahweh—the god of Israel—was considered a solar deity. I averred that evidence did not exist. With rejoinder and riposte, we had to agree to disagree. The evidence I was seeking was stringent, but as we all know, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. And that is the point that Gutting makes, whether seriously or not. The question is not “Is Zeus there?” but “Was Zeus there?”. I decline to offer an opinion. I do applaud the New York Times, however, for attempting to get us thinking about serious issues once again. If Zeus did exist, then it behooves us to consider all the implications. And perhaps to reconsider home-owners’ insurance in a world where gods may roam at large.
Over the past few months I’ve discovered Jasper Fforde. While my leisure reading tends toward heavier material, Fforde has an amazing sense of wit that makes his writing nearly irresistible. I recently read The Big Over Easy, a gritty detective novel about the case of Humpty Dumpty. Throughout the story nursery rhymes are presented in literal and improbable ways, juxtaposed with the daily life of a down-on-his-luck cop. The reason that I mention the book on this blog, however, has to do with the character of Prometheus (some mythological characters also make their way into the story). Having taught Classical Mythology over the past two years, I’ve had occasion to read quite a bit about Prometheus. He is one of the more intriguing mythological characters posited by the Greeks. The creator of humans, Prometheus has a soft spot for our development that angers the other gods, jealous as they are of their privileged places.
In The Big Over Easy, Prometheus is explaining to the protagonist and his family why he thought it was worth having his liver pecked out daily in order to give humanity fire. He then tells them that he also gave people the fear of death. When asked why, he declares that the fear of death makes mortals appreciate life. There are the negative side effects such as war, hate, and intolerance, but Prometheus maintains, “I’ve seen the alternative. Eternal slavery under the gods.” Greek creation myths leave no doubt on this point; people were created to serve the gods. If we challenge that decree that we simply inherited, we are guilty of hubris, stepping over that line that separates them from us. Gods appreciate no such challenges.
It is ironic that nations based on the ideal of freedom so readily bind themselves to the strictures of the divine. The latest aggressions in which our nation has involved itself purported to be in the cause of “liberty,” “freedom,” and “democracy.” These sentiments were uttered by politicians who believe such principles ought to be bound by archaic instructions handed down through a mythological lawgiver. Our freedom ought to be circumscribed by mythology. The irony is so thick here that it is difficult to believe anyone can take such rhetoric seriously. Perhaps Prometheus brought us fire in vain. Not to worry, however. Jasper Fforde is an author of fiction only, and the arbitrary storms of Zeus no longer strike us when the gods are angry. Unless, of course, you have forgotten Hurricane Irene. Old myths never die, and, like bad eggs, once encountered they are not easily forgotten.
Mythology has visited the big screen in many guises, but among the current spate of superhero films a god may rival mere mortals and mutants. Thor opens in theaters today, bringing a Norse god back into the public eye. Like many young boys I owe my early reading predilection to comic books. One of my favorite heroes was Thor (our birthdays were very close) but I couldn’t quite make out how he was a superhero with the unfair advantage of being a god. Why weren’t other gods down here with us? At some level I sensed Thor’s rage, and perhaps even his estrangement from his father. Was there a sadness to this mighty wielder of thunder? When I was a little older Lester del Rey’s Day of the Giants became one of my favorite books. Norse mythology is plaintive compared to the world of the jovial Greek gods. Even the beloved Balder dies.
Thor is the embodiment of one of the most ancient principles of divinity: control of the storm. A generation after Odin, Thor also experiences that generational divide that all ancient people felt marked the lives of the gods. Zeus likely developed as a more civilized form of Hadad (Baal). In Ugaritic mythology Baal is the lord of the storm; he bears a mace where Thor will grasp a hammer. Baal, however, is often described as the son of Dagan, likely an early Mesopotamian storm god. Back to the earliest levels of civilization miniscule humans have quaked in wonder at the power of storm gods. Making Thor into a superhero humanized him a bit, and with classic comic-book biceps he was sure to be a hit among scrawny boys with dreams of grandeur. We would never have been allowed to read comic books featuring Baal.
The salient point, I suppose, is what makes a god a god? In the mythological mindset, deities are quite human except for their immortality and their strength. The might of gods clashes with the might of other gods. Omnipotence takes the fun out of the equation, for a truly all-powerful deity has orchestrated this whole cosmos and we are just pathetic players on the stage. Thor rages against the machine. If a god cannot be defeated, there is no story to tell. It may be difficult to predict how well Thor will perform on the big screen, but if I am not alone in my fascination of watching gods struggle against even greater gods, this may be like the Day of the Giants for grownups and kids alike.
What’s not to like about Aphrodite? Hesiod’s first Olympian, she represents the exuberance of life itself in the pursuit of love. In our patriarchal world her erstwhile consort Cupid has come to represent that strange and compelling force that drives so much of what mere mortals spend their time on. A colleague has pointed me to a new documentary that is being produced on Aphrodite (trailer available on YouTube). In addition to fascinating footage illustrating modern Cypriot rituals to the goddess, the film contains what many would consider a sacrilege: on Cyprus the virgin Mary and Aphrodite are viewed by many as two forms of the same entity.
While the modern, monotheistic sensibility bristles at any notion of shared divinity, it seems perfectly natural that when the “mother of God” was introduced to the island that gave the world its Venus, “its desire,” a mental connection became inevitable. Unlike many “virgin goddesses” of the ancient world, Aphrodite had no false modesty regarding matters of love. Even the mighty Zeus, so powerful that he might be called simply “God,” was unable to resist her draw. Ancient peoples often celebrated the gift of love without the embarrassment that the Victorian Age has so generously bestowed on much of the western hemisphere.
Pressing the point even further, when monotheism emerged the equality of genders became an impossibility. The one god must, by the standards of all human imagination, possess a gender. And since men dominated the societies that embraced monotheism the divine feminine was lost. Orthodoxy replaced humanity, and thus it remained until only recent years when women finally managed to make their voices heard. Aphrodite, unlike Hera, is not under the control of a lordly king. The film by Stavros Papageorghiou offers viewers a chance to see what has been lost by the western world keeping half of the human race silent.
Mythology is everywhere. Although I am prevented by personal experience from declaring with the professionals that it is highly valued by our culture, I nevertheless find it lurking all around. Just yesterday my daughter asked me if anyone still believed in the Greek gods any more. I am sure that with the revival of ancient cults that is all the rage today one wouldn’t have to travel too far to find an ardent devotee of Zeus or Hera. Even on a more pragmatic level, however, mythology maintains its allure. While reading a bit of Apollonius or Euripides recently I was struck at how biblical it sounded. Mythology pervaded ancient life and became woven into the fabric from which our own culture is cut. There is no escaping it.
I just finished reading Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. While I’m not a real fan of ergodic literature, the story has a way of luring the reader into the labyrinth of the Minotaur, an association that the book itself disavows. As a student of mythology, however, I approached the book as a decidedly non-demigodic Theseus, wondering where the twists and turns might lead. My conclusion at the end was that no one truly escapes mythology. Classed in the horror genre, the book has few frights and more than a few rest stops to ponder. If we would admit it we would see that mythology still has a tremendous gravity.
The use of mythology as the basis for literary work is nothing new. Clever authors for centuries have recast the classics into newer forms, sometimes transforming them beyond recognition. As the world grows more pluralistic, keeping in touch with our mythology will only grow in importance. It is our shared heritage, and even if far distant cultures have their own cadre of myths, it doesn’t take too long to realize that their stories, like ours, spring from a very deep pool indeed.