Introduction to the Odyssey (Part 3): Greek religion and the Homeric epics

The purpose of this third and penultimate part of my introduction to the Odyssey focuses on how an ancient Greek and a modern reader can understand the portions of the Iliad and the Odyssey portraying gods and goddesses. Namely, one seeks to understand how the reader (or listener) should understand the portrayal of the ancient Greek deities. In other words, what are the Olympian passages and the references to gods or goddesses in the context of this world supposed to tell the audience? To answer the question, one needs also understand something of ancient Greek religion and how the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, fit into that context. To an extent, that understanding necessitates a discussion of ancient Greek and (later) Roman education. Yet one cannot neglect the religious conceptions of the modern audience either. The purpose of discussing what the ancients got out of Homer is really to equip the modern reader to as much as possible get those same things out of the epics too.

The standard work on Greek religious practice is the book Greek Religion by Walter Burkert, which takes a comparative religion approach to the subject. The field’s use of terms like “primitive religion” is unfortunate because to laymen (i.e., those outside the field) the connotation is pejorative; it was in the field as well but has become more nuanced over the years. What one means by the term “primitive religion” is that the intellectual side of the religion is not as richly developed as that of various modern religions with millenia of intellectual development. The halakhic and aggadic traditions of Judaism or the markedly different theology of Christianity will probably be the most familiar examples of such modern religions to readers. Even so, that kind of comparison ought not be taken to imply that modern religions are somehow “better”; rather a “primitive” religion is one which consists of ritualistic practices with a relative minimum of intellectual tradition– but by no means no intellectual aspects whatsoever. Those intellectual aspects of a “primitive” religion have simply by definition not been systematized.

Women near an altar. Interior from an Attic re...

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The ritualistic aspects of Greek religion do at times come up in the Odyssey, although a bit more frequently in the Iliad. The primary purpose of these was to show due respect to the gods so that one does not invite disaster or to appease an angry god or goddess whom one has offended. One did not ask for the gods’ help but rather one hoped the gods would not hinder one’s efforts.

This attitude is difficult for many modern readers to understand because of the stark differences from either the Jewish or Christian traditions. Moreover, many modern readers dismiss Greek religion– its belief in myths and gods and goddesses– as silly, whether from a modern monotheistic bias or from the so-called “New Atheist” view which largely dismisses religions but especially primitive ones as a form of pseudoscience based on ignorant speculations. Either view not only denigrates an entire culture that thrived for over a millennium and its people but also prevents one from fully appreciating the extant fruits of that culture, such as the Iliad and the Odyssey. Ancient Greek religion like modern religions dealt with issues of how one lives a happy and productive, meaningful life and the role of human beings in the world; it just viewed those issues very differently from the most familiar modern religions.

One should bear in mind that the Homeric epics originate from a time when Greek religion lacked a robust intellectual tradition, but they remained the core texts of that religion even when the Greeks had developed their highly sophisticated religious intellectual tradition, namely philosophy, a body of religious tradition that we still respect greatly today. Yes, modern philosophy has become secularized, but ancient Greek philosophy far from being a rejection of religion was an outgrowth of it, as acknowledged in Burkert.

The term traditionally rendered as “poet’s lies” reflects the fact that the text of Homer’s epics and other works central to Greek religion was never taken too literally. Yet, The Iliad and the Odyssey loosely give archetypes of how the Greek pantheon interacted with human beings as per ancient Greek religion. Hesiod‘s poems, the Theogeny (found in the Greek here) and Works and Days (found in the Greek here), never had the same status as the Homeric epics. Yet they describe the roles and nature of respectively gods and humans. Poets acted as the gods’ interpreters among mankind, but they nevertheless remained fallible human beings themselves so that one should not pay too close attention to the details of what they say or how they say it. What to take from the poets and what not to became one of the foundational problems in the development of philosophy. Taking the poems (as the Greeks always had apparently) as at least somewhat allegorical only partially addressed the problem. Yet one should always recall that when nearly two millennia later the Christianized Romans sought to eradicate paganism (as mentioned in Gibbon), they banned the teaching of the Iliad and the Odyssey, memorization of which (to the extent one could continue any passage cited from memory) comprised the basic education of Greeks and (later) Romans.

A god or goddess in the Greek conception more or less personifies one of the forces at work in the world. The traditional twelve Olympian gods in this sense personify the most basic forces at work in human society and the natural world. The Greek pantheon more widely embodies all the various forces the Greeks recognized. Of course, one should bear in mind that most abstract notions in Greek were also regarded as deities because the concepts of an abstract idea and of a god or goddess were not entirely separate in Greek thought. Sophia (σοϕία) then is both a minor Greek goddess of wisdom and the Greek word for wisdom itself.

Thus in the ancient Greek religious view, the essence of the world was its underlying chaos. The world in this view is in a sense incomprehensible but yet also clearly order arises out of it and so, without getting into the details of the cosmogeny, time, the earth, the sky and the grand elements with which humans cannot properly interact develop out of the chaos. These are not properly speaking gods according to the Greeks but are deities in the comparative religious sense. The twelve Olympians are the forces most at work in the human world, unpredictable and capricious, mostly involving themselves with the broad sweep of human affairs and hence dealing with individuals rarely, and then only highly exceptional people. Those people are humans but heroes, half gods themselves in that they are the great movers and shakers of the world. No one god is therefore all powerful as they contend one with another to shape the world and society, but they are in this view far removed from the sphere of ordinary humans who can at most hope to be left alone by them.

The Odyssey begins and ends with a depiction of interaction among the gods. During the main course of action, Athena– the goddess of strategy and heroic endeavors– is most noted for pushing Telemachus, Odysseus’ still somewhat immature son, in the right direction. An ancient Greek picturing the scene in human terms would envision young Telemachus becoming inspired with cunning things to do in order to try to improve his own and his family’s situation. The discussions among the gods at the start of the Odyssey tell us the important issues at stake and those at the end tell us how those issues have been resolved. A more detailed discussion of those issues is better left until the appropriate passages. What remains now is a preparatory discussion of the story of the Odyssey as a whole.

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3 Responses to Introduction to the Odyssey (Part 3): Greek religion and the Homeric epics

  1. Pingback: Why I won’t be doing the Septuagint after all | Taryag Mitzvot

  2. Ifrah says:

    this essay isn’t correct because the pantheon is for Rome and the PARTHENON is for Greece.

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