Greek Deities

One often hears,

     "the Greeks believed…[ ]…concerning the gods."

Generally, the inserted statement has to do with Homer's description of the gods, for example, that the Greek gods were jealous or belligerent or adulterous. Whenever I hear these statements, I wonder to which kind of Greeks exactly the speaker is referring.

Much debate exists as to whether Homer wrote down poetical fiction, so to speak, or the actual beliefs of the Greeks. This is a question difficult to answer. Nonetheless, even if Homer wrote down the true beliefs of the people of his day, it is not certain how many of the Greeks agreed with him on his views.
 
I can think of at least one Greek author whose belief of the gods was radically different from Homer's: Plato. When speaking of the best education for a city, Glaucon and Socrates state:

     “Our program of education must begin with censorship. The censors will approve the fables and stories they deem good and ban those they consider to be harmful. We shall persuade mothers and nurses to tell the children stories from the approved list, assuring them that the training of the soul is far more important than the training of the body. If we apply this criterion, most of the stories they tell now will have to be discarded.”
      “Which stories?”
      “Let us consider the greatest stories; that will help us to understand the less renowned stories as well. The spirit and pattern will be the same in both. Don't you think so?” 
      “It is likely. But I have yet to understand what you mean by the greatest stories."
      “Those that have come down to us from Hesiod and Homer and the other poets. Men have heard these stories again and again. We still hear them, and I believe that they are false.”
      “Which stories do you mean? What fault do you find in them?”
      “The most serious fault of all. They tell lies. Still worse, the lies they tell are malevolent.”
      “How can we tell when they are lying?”
      “Whenever they tell a tale that plays false with the true nature of gods and heroes. Then they are like painters whose portraits bare no resemblance to their models.” [The Republic, II.377.c-e]

From these statements, Plato goes on to point out specific instances in Hesiod: when the gods Cronos and Zeus revenged themselves on their respective fathers, and how these stories were untrue and should not be told indiscriminately to children and thoughtless persons, lest they imitate the wrongdoings therein. Plato continues:

     Nor can we permit it to be said that gods plot against gods and make war upon each other—which is in any case false—if we want our future guardians to abhor even the thought of quarrelling among themselves. [II.378.b]

And further, Plato asserts that, “the battles of the gods in Homer's verse have no place in [his] city, whether they purport to be allegories or not” [II.378.d], and that the norm that should govern the tales about the gods is that, “whether portrayed in epic, lyric, or tragic form, deity should always be depicted as it truly is.” [II.379.a] When deities are depicted otherwise, this is “contradictory, profitless, and impious fiction.” [II.380.c]

If one should want to know how Plato believes that the god[s] truly is [are], he states it himself:

     And is not god always good? Should he not be represented as such?  [II.379.b]

In other words, not all the Greeks believed in the gods as they are portrayed in The Iliad and The Odyssey, and even in Plato's time, some people may have seen Homer's works merely as allegorization and not reality.

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3 Comments

  1. Paul said,

    May 2, 2006 at 5:59 am

    Quite so. Socrates makes a sort of mockery of Euthyphro for his belief in the nature of the gods.
    Although, do remember the charges brought against him. It seems the most serious charge was that he did not believe in the gods of the State. The Athenian culture, it seems in the Apology, as a whole did in fact adhere to the Homeric tales of the gods.

  2. Neoclassical said,

    May 2, 2006 at 7:08 pm

    I’ll have to check into that.

    Perhaps it was that his view of the gods was a little unconventional.

    I can’t remember, does the Apology describe the gods somehow?

  3. Paul said,

    May 15, 2006 at 2:02 am

    Sorry it’s taken me an eternity to check back. The Apology does not provide such an accurate description of the Athenian view of deities as Euthyphro.


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