Saturday, January 21, 2017

What happened to the Gods of Ancient Greece?

            Some years ago I spent six hours on the Greek island of Delos walking its streets and climbing among the various sanctuaries and temples dedicated to the ancient Gods of the Greco-Roman world.  Delos, a tiny island 5 kilometers by 1300 meters, began as a religious center dedicated to the Ionian God Apollo.  Its influence in the Greek Cycladic islands endured from the seventh to the first century BCE.  The devout of many faiths from all over the civilized world came to build holy shrines on Delos, and for six hundred years worshiped their gods there.  But now the site consists of crumbled ruins, whose white marble remains glisten as so many skeletons in the burning Greek sun. Apollo, Asclepius, Dionysus, Isis, Aphrodite, and the many other Gods of their generation survived into the Roman period, but to my knowledge today there is not a single active temple dedicated to the worship of these Gods, whose power captured the imagination of the people of the ancient Mediterranean world.
 
            One modern response is to say that they were not real Gods—meaning, I suppose, that they never existed at all. I can just imagine, however, the response of the hundreds of thousands who believed in them, and through the years made their holy pilgrimages to Delos—just as today modern Christians, Jews, and Moslems make pilgrimages to the holy shrines of their faiths.  The ancient believers came, offered prayers and sacrifices, and left inscriptions throughout the ancient world attesting to the power of these Gods and their influence in the daily lives of the believers.  They would be shocked at the idea that Asclepius and Apollo are not "real."  Nevertheless today their sanctuaries are silent and these Gods considered historical artifacts. What do modern believers in God say about the silent sanctuaries of Delos?  Should they assume that these ancient Gods were simply products of the over-active imaginations of a primitive and superstitious people who lived during a naïve age?
 
            If such popular and influential Gods can so completely pass out of fashion, or be so easily dismissed as never existing, what should one think about one's own God?  Is my faith really that different from these ancient faiths, whose Gods were credited with as much power and influence in the ancient world as the Gods of current faiths enjoy in the modern world?
 
            If there is no completely satisfying answer to these questions, they at least remind us of the character of faith: faith is not demonstrable proof; it is only the evidence of a deeply held hope.  God's existence cannot be quantitatively proven—at least not in a modern scientific test-tube sense.  And that knowledge should make us all a little less arrogant in our own religious beliefs, and just a little more tolerant of the beliefs of others. It also raises the issue as to whether or not the demise of the Greek Gods was the beginning of the twilight of all the Gods.*
 
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
 
*An earlier version of this essay appears in Hedrick, House of Faith or Enchanted Forest. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009, 51-52.

13 comments:

  1. Good morning Charlie,

    You stated "and that knowledge should make us all a little less arrogant in our own religious beliefs, and just a little more tolerant of the beliefs of others." I agree wholeheartedly. It reminded me of a talk I heard recently: "A better word for faith is trust. And that is true religion. The other thing, belief, is really ideology. If religion is only an ideology it creates lots of problems and becomes egoic. It is used by the ego for its own purposes. But true religion is based on faith which is trust... Which is a realization within you- not some abstract belief that does not clash with anybody else's trust. You don't hear people say- 'My trust is more true than your trust!' " Eckhart Tolle

    The forms of the the gods people in which people believe do change over time- but the tendency to identify with them and create ideologies out of those belief systems remains as strong today as it was in the time of Zeus. Do you agree?

    There is a debate about some pagan god called Mithras... Have you heard of this god? I read that the characteristics of Jesus's life are very similar to this god's... Being born on December 25, conceived of a virgin, twelve disciples, etc. However Dr. Roger Pearse vehemently objects to this possibility and I wonder if you've heard this debate... Or if you have heard of Roger Pearse, historian of patristic church writers.

    This is what I read Jesus and Mithras's similiarities: "Mithra was a Persian savior. Worship of Mithra became common throughout the Roman Empire, particularly among the Roman civil service and military. Mithraism was a competitor of Christianity until the 4th century. Their god was said to have been born on December 25th, circa 500 BCE. His birth was witnessed by shepherds and by gift-carrying Magi. This was celebrated as the “Dies Natalis Solic Invite,” The “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.” Many followers believed that he was born of a virgin. During his life he was said to have performed many miracles, cured many illnesses, and cast out devils. He celebrated a Last Supper with his 12 disciples, and ascended to heaven at the time of the spring equinox, about March 21st.
    According to ancient Babylonian tradition, Semiramis (who eventually became known as the goddess Astarte/Asherah/Ashtoreth/Isis/Ishtar/Easter in other pagan religions) claimed that after the untimely death of her son/husband Nimrod, a full grown evergreen tree sprang up overnight from a dead tree stump. Semiramis claimed that Nimrod would visit that evergreen tree and leave gifts each year on the anniversary of his birth, which just happened to be on December 25th. Ironically, while no reference to Christmas appears in the New Testament, the celebration of Chanukah is explicitly mentioned in John 10:22." Rabbi Singer

    It's easy to see how religions can turn into competing ideaolgies, isn't it? But historically, I do wonder if you know anything about Mithras... Did it originated before or after Christianity?

    Thanks as always, Elizabeth

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    1. Hi Elizabeth,
      The short answer to your second paragraph is yes. Most organized religious groups have an ideology, a systematic and organized statement of their beliefs.
      I know very little about Mithras. He was an ancient Persian divinity/hero who came to prominence in the Roman period as the deity of a mystery religion's cult. So far as I know there is only one fragmentary literary text (disputed) of a series of questions in preparation for an initiation into the cult; there are graffiti at two Mithraic sanctuaries in Syria and Rome; and literary references by others in the Roman period are meager. So the cult is mostly known through the sanctuaries and the art and statuary of the cult. The extensive parallels with Christianity that you cite I do not know from my sources except that his birthday was celebrated on Dec 25. The tradition is that Mithras was born from a rock. See the section "A Persian Deity: Mithras," pages 287-96 in Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity. 3rd ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.
      There is evidence of a Mithraic cult in Rome from about 80 AD onwards.
      I did not know about Roger Pearse until your post.
      An interesting post on your part, thanks.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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  2. Charlie,

    Your thought above remind me of the recently (19th century) discovered characteristic of most (all?) things in our universe referred to as "Evolution". Though some mistakenly referred to Evolution as a theory, it is now assumed by the scientific community as a factual characteristic of our universe. Case in point: the evolution of human thought of God throughout human history.

    I think of how my thoughts of God have evolved from what my parents taught me as a young child, then as an adolescent my church teachers and minister taught me, to how my thoughts of God have continued to evolve throughout my adulthood due to reading, contemplating, and experiencing life. I feel sure your's have too.

    Question for contemplation: Is the "real" God evolving along with our thinking of God? Though it may not be possible for humans to ever know, I suspect not.

    Thanks for reminding me of this seemingly simple concept.

    Jim

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    1. Good Morning Jim,
      I agree with you about evolution being the way of the universe--whether species of birds, automobiles, or ideas. I think of it as the principle of obsolescence that pervades the universe. Your question for contemplation hinges on whether or not Gods (if such there be) learn. If they learn they change.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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  3. Interesting post. The responses brought several things to mind. Checking a couple of dictionaries, I see that 'faith' and 'trust' are synonyms for each other. I had not thought of that. Certainly, there is a world of difference between faith/trust and belief, although in protestant circles they are treated as synonymous.

    Concerning evolution and theory: a couple of years ago I read a great article on the ten scientific ideas scientists wish the general public would quit misusing. Two of those ideas were 'proof' and 'theory.' Here's the quote regarding the latter. "Members of the general public (along with people with an ideological axe to grind) hear the word "theory" and equate it with "idea" or "supposition." We know better. Scientific theories are entire systems of testable ideas which are potentially refutable either by the evidence at hand or an experiment that somebody could perform. The best theories (in which I include special relativity, quantum mechanics, and evolution) have withstood a hundred years or more of challenges, either from people who want to prove themselves smarter than Einstein, or from people who don't like metaphysical challenges to their world view. Finally, theories are malleable, but not infinitely so. Theories can be found to be incomplete or wrong in some particular detail without the entire edifice being torn down. Evolution has, itself, adapted a lot over the years, but not so much that it wouldn't still be recognize it. The problem with the phrase "just a theory," is that it implies a real scientific theory is a small thing, and it isn't." (Dave Goldberg, Ph.D.)

    Now, back to the root question. Will our Gods last? Aside from the fact that the world in general, and the western world in particular, seems to be moving away from a religious world view, there's one striking difference between the major religions of today and those of the past, and that is monotheism. Also, Christianity, at least, seems almost infinitely malleable, so that even with all its shape shifting, Christians can claim "Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever." (Heb. 13:8)

    Marcia

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    1. Good Morning Marcia,
      Thanks for the quote on "proof and theory" with reference to evolution.
      With reference to your last paragraph: It appears that a basic change did occur early in Christian history. Jesus was born a Judean man, who was early on identified with the Galilean region. In the earliest communities of faith he was regarded as a divine personage, but since the fourth century he has been advanced to deity. So that, as it is in the case of the the Greek athlete Theagenes, many people today even worship Jesus. More about this in my next blog.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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  4. One last note: Mithras came from a rock? Did not know that. Here's another "kinda" coincidence, Jesus speaking to Peter, "And I say unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this ROCK I will build my church...." (Matt. 16:18)

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    1. Good Morning Anonymous,
      I think you are correct that it is a coincidence, which I will define as "the occurrence of events that happen at [about] the same time by accident but seem to have some connection." How do you define a coincidence?
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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  5. Hi, Charlie. I forgot to sign my last post concerning "rock." I was being facetious, but I do think it's the type of example that is often used to "prove" some unprovable point. Your definition of coincidence corresponds with Cambridge and is certainly better than anything I could come up with, although I think everyone has experienced coincidences that are astonishing and make one wonder.

    I had not thought of the difference between "divine" and "deity" and how Jesus was perceived. Whether or not God has evolved I couldn't say, but our ideas concerning the essence and nature of God certainly have.

    Marcia

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  6. Hi Charlie,

    Did the Greek gods disappear because they were not associated with empathic behavior?

    Here is a brief quote from Kris Komarnitsky's Doubting Jesus' Resurrection, 182, (2014):

    "Empathy in its socialized form -- compassion-- appears in almost every religious and philosophical tradition, not just the Judeo-Christian tradition. For example, Hindus in 150 B.C.E. said, 'One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself; this is the essence of morality' (Mahabharata, Anusasana Paarva 113:8).'"

    He goes on to find similar thoughts in Confucius, Buddha, Zoroaster, Isocrates, Epictetus, Mohammed, and Hammurabi, to name a few.

    Komarnitsky concludes, "In my view, the founding event of Christianity is the basic idea of human equality, not resurrection...one of the biggest tasks for humankind over the long term is to put their myths in proper perspective while at the same time encouraging those societal relationships that foster human empathy, its socialized form to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and its institutionalized form, equal human rights." (187)

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    1. Good afternoon Gene (did I guess right? You didn't sign the post).
      I don't know how one would go about directly measuring a God's sense of empathy. All we really know about any God is what we are told. So I suppose one would have to measure whether a given God is thought to be, or to have been, empathetic. That being the case (and it is) then the God of Hebrew faith was not viewed in general as being very empathetic. He has his positive moments, but in the main he appears to be lacking in a sense of empathy.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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    2. Hi Charlie,

      You guessed me correctly. Does that mean I'm predictable, and is that good or bad (smile).

      I'm not quite following your reasoning. Empathy would be measured by behavior, I think.

      (1) Do you know of any Greco-Roman god who is associated with promoting and supporting empathic behavior among human beings? (2) Isn't "the God of Hebrew faith" believed to be the origin of the Torah's "love neighbor as self" and care for widows and orphans, etc. commands.

      It would seem that the gods who enrich human relationships promoting human survival are the ones likely to stay around. Were the Greco-Roman gods like that?

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

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    3. Hi Gene,
      This is your area; not mine. That said: I thought that empathy was an emotion, i.e., an inner attitude or feeling. So measuring empathetic behavior is not measuring the inner attitude because empathetic behavior may be caused by another motivation.
      To your #1: Off hand, I do not know of any incident where a Greek God is credited with promoting empathetic behavior among human beings. And even if I could recall one or two incidents where that were true, it would not be a continuous pattern of positive behavior and one would still be talking about what the ancient writers thought about the God and not the God's actual emotions (assuming Gods have emotions).
      To your #2: The answer is yes in both instances, but the God of Hebrew faith has a mixed record. He did not blink at commanding the utter annihilation of the Amalekites as a people and the stoning of a rebellious child, among other egregious behaviors, for example. In other words he does not have a continuous record of positive behavior.
      To your last paragraph: No, the Greek Gods were not like that and neither was the Hebrew God either to judge by the biblical record.

      Thanks for raising the questions. How would a psychologist go about measuring empathy? There is surely a standardized test that aims at measuring the attitude or emotions of a person.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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