Yesterday, my son’s third grade class presented charming (and very well done) sketch performances based on Greek mythology. They carefully hewed very closely to the original stories, and the hour-long performance was a great refresher course for me about the Greek myths, most of which I hadn’t thought about in years, if not decades.
As you know, the basic myths (as opposed to the legends) are aimed at explaining the origin of things. Echo and Narcissus tells how a flower and an auditory effect came into being; the story of Persephone tries to explain winter; and so on. In each case, the Greeks had before them an effect, and tried to work backwards to come up with a cause. And in each cause, the cause was the panoply of Gods.
The Greeks saw their Gods as very human, very, very human. These Gods were not bound by a moral code. They were pure id, embodiments of driving human passions pretty much untouched by any type of morality. They personified lust, jealously, anger, greed, suspicion, impatience, and any other negative quality you’d like to imagine. Their acts were often random, not because they operated on a plane we can’t understand, but because they operated on a plane with each every two year old is familiar: It’s all about me, me, me and the immediacy of my desires?
The Greek Gods’ all too human motivations means that their stories play out like the worst kind of soap operas. Things happen, and poor humans, nymphs, dryads and naiads are hideously battered about , solely because of the Gods’ whims. Persephone is wrenched from her mother and her peaceful life because Zeus decides that Hades needs a companion, and co-opts Psyche to force an otherwise supremely disinterested Hades to become mad with passion for the poor girl. When Zeus realizes that he’s made a major miscalculation, and plunged the world into endless winter, he tries to undo the mess he made. He, the head God, is then tricked by Hades’ decision to feed the unwitting Persephone four pomegranate seeds, which forces her to return to the underworld four months a year. Voila! Winter. Taking a step back from its iconographic mythological origins, It’s a profoundly silly story. It also makes a very interesting contrast to the Jewish God.
The Jewish God is, first and foremost, a God of rules and morality. In this, he is sharply distinct from the Greek Gods, who have no apparently morality beyond their desires. This means that his followers aren’t constrained in their conduct by his randomness and ego, but by the fact that their forefathers’ entered into a covenant with him, by which they follow his rules and he, well, he makes them “his people.”
There’s actually no direct benefit to being God’s chosen people (either in the Bible or in the centuries since the Bible). That is, he doesn’t reward his followers with showers of gold and eternal life and frolicking on some heavenly mount. There are direct downsides, though. If you don’t follow God’s explicitly stated rules, he will trounce you, big time.
Thinking about it, the benefit to the Jews (and Christians) of this special relationship is actually the byproduct of the relationship. In other words, what they lack in direct rewards from God, they gain indirect rewards flowing from their changed conduct. In lieu of cruel, Hobbesian world, they create a civil society, within which people know the rules that tie them to each other and to the societies around them. They have the consciousness of virtue in a random world. They can’t change the randomness, but they can change their own perception of themselves. They are not the Gods’ toys anymore. They are actors, who have adult obligations to this abstract, unknowable God.
God’s unknowability is also a distinct virtue specific to this new monotheistic religion. This unseen God is not cheapened by cavortings with nymphs and with his ungovernable passions. He may be a jealous God, but his is not the jealously of lust. It is a deep desire to keep his people pure, to assure that they pursue the virtuous path he devised, and that they don’t fall off that righteous pathinto the random emotions of the surrounding Pagan religions. For the people of faith, moral behavior is internalized because this unseen God expects them to be good, not because if they follow the wrong ritual, he might show up one day and turn them into a plant.
The Jews (and, following them, the Christians), don’t need to ascribe bizarre soap operas to God to explain the unexplainable on the earth around them. It is enough to know that God works in mysterious ways. He is not just a human with a lightening bolt and a magic wand. He is something different altogether. We do as he desires because it is good for us, not because he’ll fall into a screaming fit on some heavenly floor.
I love the Greek and Roman mythologies because they are wonderful stories — and because, in their overwhelming humanness, they do allow us to peer through the mists of time and feel a connection to the long dead Greeks and Romans who created these stories. But that’s what they are: stories. They have nothing spiritual about them, nothing that talks to a society’s super ego and that enables it to have aspirations that rise above base human emotions.Email This Post To A Friend
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