Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

HOMER: The Iliad (Book 8: Polytheism and Monotheism)

Quick quiz: which is an easier concept to grasp, polytheism or monotheism; one god or many gods? In the Iliad Book 8 we read that “Zeus called the gods in council on the topmost crest of Mount Olympus.” This is polytheism. In Exodus Book 3 we read that “Moses… led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb… (and the Lord said) I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” This is monotheism. The Hebrews faced many problems when they left Egypt; but knowing which god they should pray to was not one of them. There was only one God. If I’m a Hebrew, ‘The Lord” is the only God I answer to. The Greeks and Trojans, on the other hand, have many gods to answer to: Apollo, Athena, Aphrodite, the list goes on. If I’m a Greek I ask myself: which god should I pray to? Do I adopt one special god or just bypass all the minor gods and go straight to the biggest god, Zeus? You would think the best idea is to ask Zeus to protect me not only from the Trojans but also from the other gods. But it doesn’t seem to work that way. The Greek gods are jealous gods. Poseidon complains to Zeus that the Greeks don’t bother to ask his permission or protection before building a defensive wall on the beach. Why should Poseidon care? He cares because he’s the god of the sea. So the beach is his turf. Other gods are gods of other things. Every “thing” is some god’s turf. If you’re Greek, be careful. Be very careful.
This must have kept the Greeks in a constant state of anxiety. In fact, the Iliad starts off with Achilles calling a council of the Greeks. What they’re trying to find out is why are the gods so angry? Or, in this case, which god is angry? It turns out that the Greeks have offended Apollo. Of course you don’t want to offend any of the gods but you really don’t want to offend Apollo. He’s the god of health and has sent a plague upon the Greeks. And it also turns out that Apollo is supporting their enemies, the Trojans. That’s bad. But fortunately for the Greeks the goddess Athena is supporting them. And that’s good. Obviously polytheism can be a confusing business. Maybe that’s why war is a confusing business; because the gods are taking sides and fighting against one another. In that scenario men are just cannon fodder. We fight proxy wars that are really controlled and fought out by the gods on Mount Olympus. What seems like anarchy on earth must be going through some orderly conflict resolution process in heaven, right? Wrong. In the Iliad the gods and goddesses are not going through some orderly process of conflict resolution. They’re fighting amongst themselves much the way human beings fight it out on earth; except the gods are immortal. On earth soldiers kill each other and their spirits flutter away uneasily to the underworld and that’s that. It’s over and done with. On Mount Olympus things are different. Zeus calls a council of the immortal gods.
Then Zeus speaks and all the other gods listen. "Hear me," said he, "gods and goddesses, and let me may speak as I want to. Let none of you goddesses or gods try to cross me, but obey me every one of you that I may bring this war to an end… Try me and find out for yourselves. Hang a golden chain from heaven, and lay hold of it all of you, gods and goddesses together; then tug as hard as you can, you will not drag Zeus the supreme counselor from heaven down to earth. But if I wanted to pull you up by myself I could draw you all up with earth and sea into the bargain, then I could bind the chain around some pinnacle of Olympus and leave you all hanging in the air. That’s how far I am above all you other gods and men.” In other words: shut up, he explained. This is how business is done on Mount Olympus. Polytheism works because the gods obey Zeus. The Lord in Exodus doesn’t have this problem because there are no other gods. The ancient Greeks (poly-) and Hebrews (mono-) had very different visions of theism.


Post a Comment

<< Home