The Greek Pantheon As The Reflection Of The Society Of The Ancient Greece Essay Sample
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The ancient Greeks were recognized as the world’s pioneers in studying science, philosophy, and mathematics. One of the contributions of the Greek culture was the Greek mythology which explains the formation of the universe as well as the creation of the mankind. The most noticeable structure of the Greek pantheon was the depiction of gods and goddesses with human attributes. Although the deities have human attributes, their existence in the Greek culture made the humans to become aware of the society hierarchy. For centuries, the subject concerning the Greek mythology brings delight to many people as it provides a fantastic overview of man’s viewpoint in the past and the sovereignty of the gods over the mortals. First, a short literature review regarding the creation of the universe and the mortals, including a short history of ancient Greece will be provided with a purpose to inform the readers about the life of ancient Greeks. Next pages will discuss the concept of heavenly hierarchy versus mortal hierarchy, its similarities and difference and how the ancient Greeks perceived their gods. Furthermore, a comparison and contrast between the gods and mortals; this will examine their behavior and way of life. This will establish the various nexus of human and deity attributes and what makes the Greek mythology similar to the human society. The final pages of the paper will also examine the portrayal of divinity and mortals in 21st century literature.
Reconstructing the Universe and History of Ancient Greece
The universe began with Chaos, a dark and formless void. The Greek mythology provides no account pertaining to its gender. Nyx and Erebus were the children of Chaos; Nyx was the goddess who ruled the night whilst Erebus was the god of the darkness. According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Erebus and Nyx developed an incestuous relationship in order to conceive children, a characteristic which is pretty common in world mythologies (Hesiod 125-126). Aristophanes, the great Greek playwright also noted that the union of the two deities created Love “and with its birth, order and beauty began to banish blind confusion. Love created Light (Aether) with its companion, radiant Day.” (Hamilton 66). In addition, the events that followed the creation of the first deities were the formation of the Earth. However, the ancient Greeks never really knew how to explain when and how the Earth was formed not until the poet Hesiod attempted to explain the beginning of everything. In the Theogony, he wrote that Earth was formed after Nyx gave birth to her children,
“whom she conceived and bore from union in love with Erebus. And Earth first bore starry Heaven, equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods.” (Hesiod 126-129).
Science explains that the Earth was inhabited by different kinds of life forms starting from the smallest bacteria up to the bigger creatures like dinosaurs. Long before, the ancient Greeks thought that long before the creation of mankind, strange and different creatures, and as Hamilton suggests, “these creatures resemble human, and yet have unhuman [sic] attributes because they have the strength that can cause earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and deadly hurricanes.” (Hamilton 67). Furthermore, the last gods were called ‘The Elder Gods’ or the Titans. From the Titans, Cronus ruled the gods until Zeus seized the throne from him through the help of Gaea, the Goddess of the Earth.
One of the best things about the ancient Greek mythology is the fact that the ancient Greeks portrayed the Gods like them; human and yet not human at all. The world’s well-known mythology such as those from the Egyptian created their gods and goddesses with a head of animals but with a human body. Unlike the Greeks, the Egyptians sculpted their deities in a stiff fashion which lacks life and motion; a contrast of the Greek sculpture with full emphasis on physique and in motion. Even in the ancient Mesopotamia, their gods were depicted without any resemblance from the humans. In short, their gods were often depicted in paintings as powerful and monstrous. What the Greeks did was indeed a very unique and daring attempt to personify their deities which have not entered the mind of mankind before. They liberated the world from the fear of the ‘unknown.’ When referring to the heavenly deities, no one has ever seen nor proven their real existence until Homer saw Hermes in the marketplace.
“Hermes of the gold rod, was a young man of that age when youth looks its best with the down just mantling his cheeks.” (Homer 10: 143).
According to scholar Edith Hamilton, the ancient Greeks’ purpose of modeling their gods is to provide them some comfort because the human gods made the heavenly realm a nice and familiar place (Hamilton 17). This is explained through the viewpoint of anthropocentrism wherein the humans are the center of everything, including the universe. In spite of having an animalistic nature, the humans are far more rational than the other animals. The Greeks high regard for the beauty of human appearance enabled them to create heavenly deities modeled in their own appearance. Their fascination towards anthropocentrism can be seen on the statues depicting their gods and goddesses. Most of them were carved depicting sharp facial features resembling humans; high forehead, aquiline nose, tight-lipped mouth and serene facial expressions. Sculptors also studied the anatomy of the human body in order to depict the muscles whilst in action, the tilt of the body and the proportional sizes of arms and limbs. Unlike the Egyptians, the Greek sculptures are full of life, just like their mythology because the behavior of the deities reflects the same behavior of the humans they rule. Furthermore, the gods and goddesses tend to display common human behaviors such as jealousy, anger, lust, and love either to their own kin or to the mortals. One account of anger will be the scene wherein Hera became enraged with the entire Troy due to petty reasons: she was not chosen as the most beautiful, instead of choosing her, the Trojan man selected the goddess Aphrodite because she promised him that she will give him the most beautiful woman in the world whose name was immortalized as Helen of Troy. Helen was the daughter of Castor and Pollux. Enraged, insulted, humiliated, Hera’s wrath made Troy to fall to its ruins because Prince Paris, the son of King Priam had chosen Aphrodite as the fairest woman. On the other hand, Zeus was the god who was notorious of his love affairs. He had many lovers and many bastard children from different mothers. In modern analysis, Zeus can be labeled as a ‘perverted old man’ who have enormous sexual appetites. Hamilton provides only short accounts of his famous relationships with Europa and Io. Europa was a maiden who gained geographical recognition after Zeus fell in love with her (Hamilton 82). However, in the case of Io, she suffered a terrible fate for Zeus turned her into a cow (Hamilton 80) in order to save her from the wrath of his wife. Aside from behavioral similarities, the heavenly realm is modeled based from the human government. Zeus and Hera were the two most important deities of the Greek mythology. Their counterparts on the human society will be the kings and queens. The lesser gods are the gods who have a higher rank than the others but have a lower rank compared to Zeus and Hera. Their human counterpart will be the members of the aristocracy and the priests who were in charge of performing religious rituals.
Somehow, the entire Greek pantheon were organized based on the rank, which is similar to the human realm wherein the worth of a person is determined by his social class, wealth, and connections to the other members of the society. For instance, the Greek gods incorporate a hierarchy to classify the most important gods from those who have lesser importance. Zeus was the chief of the Olympian gods and his wife Hera was the second most powerful and important to the hierarchy. If they lived in within the human society, they would be the counterparts of the kings, queens whilst the gods who fall below the order will be the members of the aristocracy. Furthermore, in the Greek society, the royal family held the most important position in the society, along with the priests. Meanwhile, the demi-gods or the gods ousted by the chief deities such as Ares, were the ones composed the lower level in the hierarchy because of their rank or somehow they failed to be acknowledge by the gods themselves. The gods were the supreme deity above all. The gods created the humans to serve them and to please them. Although they have human-like appearances, they were certainly different from ordinary human in terms of power and their ability to manipulate the lives of ordinary people.
Humans were always keen on exploring new things and even discovering the answers to everything. What man cannot explain before, can be explained now by science. However, the people of the past were illiterate and did not have any idea about the origin of the universe. Whenever there is an earthquake, they would simply think that probably the gods were angry. If the volcano is erupting, probably the Vulcan, the god of metalworking and fire is trapped under the volcanic crust. With the creation of Greek mythology, the ancient Greeks liberated mankind from the fear of thought that gods were simply figures with animal heads or gods with no definite form and appearance. Probably, the Greeks thought that how could the gods understand them [the Greeks] about their designed as animal-deities who have passive and immobile figures. The logic is this, if a horse will be literate enough to see that he is a horse, if humans will ask [the horse] about their gods, they simply sketch the figure of a horse. Because that is the only figure that are accessible for them. Hence, this is similar too in regards with the Greek pantheon. As Hamilton stated:
“That is the miracle of Greek mythology; a humanized world, men freed from the paralyzing fear of an omnipotent Unknown.” (Hamilton 17).
Based from the myths provided earlier, the Greek gods were created by the humans in order to elevate themselves from the suffering of the world. The gods were somehow the humans’ way of expressing their desire to be in control of everything, just like the gods. The Greek gods have an access to almost everything. They had a strict justice code in which one of the punishment will be death, torture, and humiliation. This was especially true in the myth of Prometheus, the Titan God who stole the fire from the gods and he was also the man who tricked the gods with the food. Prometheus love for mankind gave him the courage to challenge the gods; however he never won. Many accounts about mythology states that, he was tied to a rock in Caucasus and vultures eat his internal organs at day whilst the parts eaten by the birds grew by night. Based from the story of Prometheus, the gods perceive the mortals as the lesser beings who only exist to serve the gods. So, the best things should go to the gods since it was because of their powers that the universe was created. Sometimes, the attitudes of the Greek gods and goddesses were so immature, childish and often abusive of their powers. Just like Zeus, he had the power desired by every man; for Hera, she had the strength and beauty which can rival to her daughters but instead of giving up the contest of the fairest, she continued with the challenge and even offered to make a man [Paris] the ruler of Europe and the East if ever he will chose her (Hamilton 186).
Unlike the gods, humans die of old age whereas the gods do not age, for they were already gods and not aging is perhaps a part of their physical attributes. Humans are weak, but the gods were much stronger. Humans do not have the power to control the elements such as the thunder, water, fire, wind, and death. Instead, the gods control the mortals and their lives, for example, the three female daughters of Themis called ‘Fates’ literally hold the fate of every person. Clotho weaves the fate and Lachesis assigns them to every individual. The third daughter was Atropos, the ‘string-cutter.’ It was said in the Theogony that she holds the power to punish an individual by cutting the lifeline that supports the life of the people; once the string is cut, death is inevitable and it cannot be undone. (Hesiod 218-220). The ancient Greeks created the gods primarily to impose social order to everyone in the society; including their obligations and responsibilities towards the gods. Furthermore, humans cannot and will certainly not overcome the gods and goddesses. The only way they can escape death was for them to become the ‘ward’ of the gods such as Ganymede. The presence of heavenly powers is the only thing that makes them unique compared to the mortals.
Despite the lack of immortality, humans are also likened to the gods because they were the supreme rulers on the mortal realm. Just like the gods, men frequently toys with the lives of each other, steal properties, get jealous, insulted, angry at petty things. They were also capable of feeling sexual desires towards the opposite sex. But one deadly sin that a human commits was the excessive pride and arrogance either towards other people or even in front of the gods. One example of this was the story of Arachne and Athena. This tale was narrated by the Roman poet Ovid in his book called the Metamorphosis. This account was mythical because Athena mingled with the common people just to accept the challenges of Arachne, the best weaver in town. According to Ovid, Minerva (Athena) wears clothes suited for old lady and was fully disguised in an old lady’s clothes. Arachne was an arrogant young woman who never wanted anyone to share her fame.
“in all her motions one might well perceive, how much Minerva had instructed her:but this she ever would deny, displeased to share her fame; and said, “Let her contendin art with me; and if her skill prevails, I then will forfeit all!” (Ovid 6: 32-37)
Unknown to her, Ovid stated that Minerva was already watching her; Minerva accepted Arachne’s challenge and eventually faced Arachne in battle. Arachne was selfish and did not want Athena to share her fame. Athena disliked the fact that Arachne was too arrogant even in front of her. The story concludes that Athena won the spinning contest and as a punishment for her insolence, Athena transformed Arachne into a spider, an insect that weaves its houses commonly seen at trees, and human dwellings. This story illustrates the two things: first, respect towards other people because one will never know if God had tried visiting you whether in my sleep or during the wakeful hours. In the story, Athena represented all the heavenly deities whilst the Arachne represented the mortal realm. The main argument of Ovid is that individuals must know their place, address, phone number, and even email. Because Arachne only looked at the physical appearance of the Athena during the challenge, it was clear that she was demanding respect especially in front of the other members of the royal family. The moral lesson of the story was to enlighten the readers about the ill effects of bad temper and arrogance. For the gods, it was termed as hubris and depending on the severity, a god or a goddess may decide to punish death or torture (physical and mental).
“And, so Arachne, rival of her fame, might learn the folly of her mad attempt,from the great deeds of ancient histories, and what award presumption must expect,Minerva wove four corners with life scenes of contest, brightly colored, but of sizediminutive.” (Ovid 10: 230-236)
The ancient Greeks created their gods based on their own image (Hamilton 15-16). Even after a thousand years, the records about the tales of gods and goddesses still exist and the Greek’s bold and daring way of conquering the ‘Unknown’ was a remarkable advancement in critical thinking. There is an invisible nexus between the Greek mythology and the Greek culture; even after many years, many Greeks still use their ancestors’ writings in order to explain further the unusual occurrences in the Earth. The Greeks made their gods as human because they thought that it will be logical to have a god that looks exactly just like the humans they rule. For the Greeks, this gave them the sense of security, peace, and some information about the early Greek civilization. The gods were human and yet they are not human in terms of physical strength. When mentioning god or any heavenly deity, people often conceive wondrous and almost exaggerated thoughts about them deep in their minds; as a god, power is important not only for defense, but also for political and society influences. Furthermore, humans are the equivalent of the gods because of their ability to think rationally like the gods. Moreover, the Greek pantheon reflects the attributes of the Greek society as well as the mortals. The gods’ mirror the human behaviors such as the negative feelings: jealousy, anger, boastfulness, lust, treachery and many more. Ad hoc, Greek mythology is one of the most wonderful pieces of literature ever made because it provides the readers with different historical overview about the legend of a certain thing. The ancient Greece was therefore highly advanced in terms of thinking which made the ancient Greek religion survived after thousands of years.
Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. 1942. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2012. Print.
Hesiod. Theogony. Trans. Evelyn White and Hugh Gerard. London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons/ Heinemann, 1914. Web. Retrieved from http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0020.tlg001.perseus-eng1
Homer. The Odyssey of Homer. Trans. T.E. Lawrence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Web. Google Book.
Ovid. Metamorphosis. Trans. Brookes More. Boston: The Cornhill Publishing Company, 1922. Web. Retrieved from http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0028%3Abook%3D6%3Acard%3D1
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