Imagining Many Gods: Sappho and Homer
The ancient writers – were they like us, or were they different? Perhaps people are people and their ancient problems continue to be ours today. But suppose what is common for us would be alien for them, and their experience unfathomable to us? If they were really different, then our self-understanding could turn out to be limited, maybe even nonsensical. Studying the past could be unsettling if not dangerous. I prefer the second option. It means the ancients have something to teach us about ourselves, and some of these things may turn out to be beyond our common understanding.
The ancient Greeks worshipped many gods. We are likely to be familiar with the Olympian Deities. Still, it is easy to become confused; each has both a Greek and a Roman name – most prominently, Zeus (Jupiter); Hera (Juno); Poseidon (Neptune); Hades (Pluto); Aphrodite (Venus); Ares (Mars), Athena (Minerva), Hermes (Mercury), Hephaistos (Vulcan), Apollo (Phoebus Apollo), and that dangerous new-comer Dionysus (Bacchus). The ancients took their gods seriously, both in official ceremonies conducted in central locations by the state, but also in the small village world and at the private hearth. In a pre-technical world, when so many matters were beyond the control of human beings, propitiating the gods seemed sensible, and was as effective then as now.
We believe we are monotheists, and even atheists in our time vigorously deny the existence of only one god. However, were aliens to study us, they might well conclude that we worship many gods, just not officially. Money, power, celebrity, creativity, sexual pleasure, the delight in violence, sociability, and celebration of ourselves, all would appear in our Olympian roster … with that august fellow called “God” lagging behind as a ponderous after-thought. That God – the Abrahamic One God – is all about restraint (although sometimes resembling Zeus, when loosing his fateful lightning), and about the world beyond (when not dictating policy to politicians in this world with unquestionable authority). We may not be so far from polytheism as we think. What would our world be like if we worshipped directly what we worship in our minds and hearts and actions?
To find some answer, I have looked at the poets … Sappho and Homer, both from before the birth of philosophy. They write from a time when our deities had not yet been subjected to demands for rationality, before the time when human beings decided to set the laws and boundaries on what gods could be about, both in their own behavior and in what they could demand from us.
Sappho was born in the seventh century BCE, two centuries before Socrates required the gods to adhere to moral and intellectual consistency and several more before Christianity had consigned most of human nature to the devil. In Plato’s Republic Socrates condemns what we have come to call the Greek Myths because they portray gods doing immoral and irrational things. In this account, gods or God (Plato calls it “the good”) are bound by a code of rational and decent behavior. Goodness and righteousness, then, are the gods of God. Christianity takes this further by insisting that human nature is corrupt and whatever is excellent in us is worthless without the sanction of Jesus’ teaching. The lesson of 1 Corinthians 13 condemns our human powers and accomplishments as mere “tinkling cymbals and sounding brass” compared with caring for one another and maintaining faith in God. What can we learn from a world before these adjustments and revaluations? If we were devoted to these old Greek gods, what would our lives be like?
Sappho and Devotion to Aphrodite
The library at Alexandria once held nine volumes of Sappho’s works. Her poetry was well known throughout the Mediterranean; but little survives. Some think the early Christian Church destroyed her works. Whatever the truth of that, we have Sappho’s works, once so popular, only as a half dozen reconstructed poems and several dozen fragments gathered from potshards and mummy wrappings. By happy accident, one Sappho poem was preserved in its entirety but only because the rhetorician Dionysius of Halicarnassus used it in a textbook as an example of excellent expression.
In our monotheistic world, Greek gods have become decorative or merely a manner of speaking by which pre-scientific peoples explained the unexplainable. We delight in those gods and tell stories of them to our children to excite their imaginations before they settle down to the real work of managing a cost-estimated reality. Still, we retain hints of their powers. Aphrodite (Venus) and her cupids, and not merely on Valentine’s Day, haunt our dreams, both night and day. Ares (Mars), the god of war, directs our national policy far more forcefully than the teachings of Jesus do. Indeed, Ares seems to provide our business ethic, too, where warfare and deadly combat provide the metaphors for getting ahead. And we invite God to strike us dead – presumably with one of Zeus’ (Jupiter’s) lightning bolts – when we protest our truthfulness, even when we know God records all infractions and postpones our punishments until the Day of Judgment.
Occasionally, it may occur to us, as it did to Wordsworth in his sonnet “The World is Too Much with us,” (1805) that these gods were real and alive to ancient people. The speaker in Wordsworth’s poem imagines that the gods lived in a richly embellished world where our inner experience shared force with all creation, and where the natural world, peopled with Olympian figures, was personified without embarrassment. Before the soul became spiritualized, and bodies demoted to mere means of transportation for the spirit, gods spoke to us. In that world all was invested with the energies and intelligences of fabulous beings, and every hill and stream told a story that made them and us magical.
To recall, Wordsworth’s speaker, in his disgust at having a mind framed by the bland “getting and spending” of his commercial time, bursts out:
Great God! I’d rather be
A pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea.
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
The speaker yearns for a primitive imagination that sees and hears the ocean gods instead of calculating beach-front rentals as a sensible person would. It is not clear in the poem whether the speaker completes his journey back to the vital perceptions of ancient times. His wish is hemmed in by a subjunctive “So might I,” by the limiting realization of “glimpses,” and by the moderation of “less forlorn” rather than the simple and affirmative “happy.” However, the speaker is convinced that these gods drove the forces of nature and were once real and palpable to us.
The young woman in Sappho’s “Hymn to Aphrodite” has that sort of mind. She summons the goddess, who recalls for the poet their intimate relation to one another. Translations vary, but they all emphasize the humorous intimacy between the young woman and the goddess, two girls of like mind conspiring together:
Undying Aphrodite on your caparisoned throne, Daughter of Zeus and weaver of ruses—
Now I address you:
Queen, do not hurt my heart, do not harry it
But come as before when you heard and you hearkened
A long way away,
And leaving behind the house of your father, harnessed a golden chariot winged
By your beautiful swans,
Beating and whirring across the sky,
Bringing you down to the unbright earth –
So suddenly there:
Mistress, the smile of your undying features
Asking me what was it troubled me this time?
What made me call you
This time? What was my desperate heart wanting done?
And your: “Whom shall I this time bend to your love?
Who is it Sappho
That’s doing you wrong? For if she’s escaping
Soon she’ll be chasing: if she’s refusing
Your gifts, she shall give them.
And, if she’s not loving, soon shall she love you,
Like it or no.”… Oh, come again now:
Let me go loose from this merciless craving.
Do what I long to have done: be my own
Helper in battle. (trans. Paul Roche)
This lyric makes its point through contrasts. Aphrodite inhabits a brilliant world of “golden” chariots and must be invoked to abandon her “caparisoned throne” (poikilothrone) to descend to our “unbright earth.” Aphrodite is the “Daughter of Zeus” (establishing her honorable Olympian heritage), but she is also a “weaver of ruses,” (doloploke) a trickster of the heart. Invoked by her devoted Sappho, she is “So suddenly there,” and an intimate and humorous conversation ensues.
The poem’s voice shifts from Sappho’s imagining to the goddess speaking. Aphrodite playfully mocks poor Sappho. The goddess is immortal, her features undying (athanatos); the human lover lives in time, in ragged and demeaning repetition. The goddess makes this clear; she has been on this mission before: “what was it troubled me this time? What made me call/This time? .. “Whom shall I this time bend to your love?” The repetition of “this time” (deute) marks a comic exasperation in Aphrodite, the Olympian witness to a human heart captive to vagrant passions. The further question “Who is it Sappho/That’s doing you wrong?” contrasts a wise older sister who, with gentle humor, understands distressed desire. Though playful and mocking, the goddess sympathizes with poor pouting Sappho who counts it a moral wrong if her beloved fails to respond immediately. Though expressed gently here, to be gripped by desire is to abandon judgment and in petulance to imagine harm where there is none.
Sappho seeks to have Aphrodite cast a spell on the beloved so that she too will be gripped by desire, whether that is good for her, or whether the torment she will feel is in any way deserved. Only these ruses can free Sappho from “this merciless craving.” In another poem, Sappho provides this description of desire’s torment:
Your magical laughter – this I swear –
Batters my heart – my breast astir –
My voice when I see you suddenly near
Refuses to come.
My tongue breaks up and a delicate fire
Runs through my flesh; I see not a thing
With my eyes, and all that I hear
In my ears is a hum.
The sweat runs down, a shuddering takes
Me in every part and pale as drying grasses,
Then, I think I am near
The moment of dying. (trans. Paul Roche)
The goddess has no interest in the welfare of the beloved but only in playing those tricks by which desire triumphs. Neither of these conspirators is honest and just, for there is only one way to transcend this unbright earth, and that is through the transforming power of desire. Sexual desire is Sappho’s religion, Aphrodite is her goddess, and love is the remedy for the dullness of our days and for the sour recognition of our mortality.
Aphrodite is one of the dozen great forces the Greeks celebrated in order to understand themselves. We can think of these twelve gods as something like the zodiac’s distribution of character types. If so, the Greeks appear willing to accept both the joys and pains that come with exclusive devotion to any one of these mighty beings. Our horoscopes, in contrast, allow for mixed types in profusion and usually do not require us to pay the stern price for the unalloyed gifts of nature. As Nietzsche protested, moralism exalted restraint and exiled all competing principles in order to elevate moral consistency (at the service of the good of the community, sometimes expressed as the state) not above competing virtues but as the only good. This means that all human potentials other than that of moral consistency and the authority of administered goodness are condemned. Nietzsche mocked this narrowing of the palette of values. If Aphrodite is to be eclipsed by the need for administrative order, the world turns gray and dismal. Banish Sappho, and banish all the world.
Odysseus and Athena
If the Church did set out to outlaw Sappho’s poetry, it should not surprise us. The Greek gods represent human nature in all its variety, each kind of soul (or personality) supported by a god or goddess to whom the devotee could give her or his all. Some of us are Ares (Mars) people, some belong to Hephaistos (Vulcan), and some, like Sappho, are children of Aphrodite (Venus). Think of Odysseus and his relation to Athena (Minerva). Athena is devoted to Odysseus because he dedicates himself to her without reserve. He has an “Athenan” soul. He is quick-witted, a master strategist, an aggressive man who keeps calm, even in the face of terrifying monsters. What Athena weaves in fabric, Odysseus weaves in plans for action. Who of us could invent, while gazing into the horrifying face of Polyphemus (the Cyclops), the remarkable trick of calling himself “No Man”? Such craftiness is beyond human powers, except for a human assisted by his personal goddess. This undivided devotion makes Odysseus what he is, both his stunning prowess and also his troubled restlessness. He possesses a hero’s character, one that serves neither the welfare of his crew, the safety of his family, or the needs of Ithaca. His brilliance is to be the man he is.
Let us pause to recall the story of Odysseus and the Cyclops from Homer’s The Odyssey (Book IX). Coming upon an unfamiliar group of islands, Odysseus decides to leave behind eleven of his ships. He then selects twelve of his best warriors to go exploring. They come upon an empty cave, clearly inhabited by a shepherd who produces cheese in great abundance, and help themselves. When this shepherd returns, Odysseus and his crew are horrified to discover that he is the one-eyed giant Polyphemus (“much spoken of”). The Cyclops drives his flock inside, and then blocks the entranceway with an immense stone, trapping the intruders inside. Polyphemus soon discovers his unwelcomed guests, seizes two of them by the legs, dashes out their brains, and devours them. The brave crew is terrified and can see no way to escape their cannibal captor. Their command of their courage and their wits is not improved when, upon awakening, the Cyclops breakfasts upon two more crewmen before shepherding out his flock to graze and then carefully resealing the mouth of the cave.
Although others have abandoned their wits to terror, Odysseus remains cool and sets about devising a plan. His solution demonstrates just why he is the favorite of Athena, goddess of strategic warfare and weaving. This pairing of skills might first strike us as strange, one so masculine and the other associated with domestic tasks, but they are intimately related. For the pattern to appear in any complex tapestry, the weaver must be able to foresee, hundreds of threadings ahead, where the emerging pattern will go. Similarly, a plan of battle is a weaving of men and materials into the most demanding reality. Odysseus is Athena’s favorite precisely because he is so skilled at strategy; and because he is so skilled, Athena guides his fate in the world. His superb potential is realized fully with the assistance of his goddess. Put another way, the cunning demonstrated by Odysseus in defeating Polyphemus exceeds the capability of all but a very few in history. He is that one among us — think of your childhood gang of friends — who says, “I know what we can do,” and is correct while the rest of us stand by in confusion. How can we account for this precocity? Surely, our capable friend is favored by Athena and is learning to perfect this aptitude, which is the gift of the goddess. How else account for such prowess, executed by a mere mortal like ourselves?
Looking about the cave, Odysseus notices a sizable log, still green with sap, and orders his quaking crewmen to sharpen one end to a keen point, and then harden the point over a blazing fire. But his crewmen could well ask: “what good is that?” Polyphemus is a giant of immense strength, and no bulky weapon of this sort can be wielded effectively by puny mortals. His crew cannot be encouraged when after the Cyclops returns at the end of his day, he finishes off his meal by devouring two more of Odysseus’ men for dessert. Well fed, and happy with his pantry of human delicacies, Polyphemus enjoys Odysseus’ obsequious gesture in offering him a fine wine brought from afar. The crude shepherd delights in this delicacy and graciously rewards his guest, Odysseus, with a special gift. When Polyphemus asks Odysseus his name, Odysseus tells him his name is “no man” (“me tis” in Greek). Having drunk his fill, Polyphemus reveals his malice; the gift will be that “me tis” will be eaten last, and the monster roars with laughter at his grim trickery. Things appear hopeless, especially if we have forgotten that sharpened stake, but Odysseus has not.
When the giant, having enjoyed Odysseus’ gift, collapses into drunken slumber, Odysseus orders his men into action. Shouldering the huge log, they plunge its smoldering point into the single eye of the Cyclops. In agony, the blinded giant rushes from his cave bellowing for assistance from his Cyclopean neighbors. But all he can tell them is that “no man” (me tis) has injured him, and so his neighbors depart. Next morning, Odysseus and his men leave by grasping the undersides of blind Polyphemus’ rams so he cannot detect them as they escape. The least alert reader will marvel at the wit of “no man” whose adopted name in Greek (“metis”) also means “cunning” (“Metis” is also the name of Athena’s mother). How can we fail to marvel at the super-human, god-given powers of someone who grasps his identity so firmly?
Homer adds an intriguing coda to this tale. Odysseus may be Athena’s favorite, but in the end he is no match for her excellence. Once he and his men have made their escape, Odysseus in his pride cannot resist attaching his name to this triumph. Riding the waves at what he thinks a safe distance, prideful Odysseus announces his identity to the enraged giant. It was not “no man” who did this, he shouts, but “Odysseus” (“The bringer of pain”). Tracking Odysseus’ location by his boastful voice, Polyphemus rains giant boulders down upon the Greek ships, nearly sinking them. Informed of his crafty antagonist’s identity, Polyphemus appeals to his father Poseidon for revenge. Poseidon (Neptune), the powerful god of the sea, then punishes Odysseus by delaying his return home to Ithaca for ten years. Masterfully cunning, Odysseus is also human; he cannot resist the boasting that taints his otherwise perfect strategy.
Tennyson surely had it right when he distinguished between the souls of Ulysses (Odysseus) and of his son Telemachus. While Telemachus shows his excellence by his devotion to guiding his people
Discerning to fulfill
This labor, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and through soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good
Ulysses prefers to have
Become a name:
For always roaming with a hungry heart
For Ulysses, his son’s devotion to civic order and justice is excellent. Telemachus has the perfect soul to rule in Ithaca. Still, Ulysses prefers matching his wits against the overwhelming forces of nature and its titanic gods. He is driven by a need to assert his raging self, even in the face of the unknown and of all but certain destruction beyond the edge of the known world … “to go where no man has gone before.” Tennyson reminds us that Dante’s Christianity had condemned Ulysses for his false rhetoric; still he helps us recognize what perfect religious devotion to ones divinity means. Like Sappho’s, Odysseus’ dedication to his god is both brilliant and dark.
We find elsewhere in Homer a very different kind of soul and devotion. In Book One of The Iliad Homer recalls a festive gathering of the Olympian gods. While they dine on the nectar only gods can taste, we notice that these immortals are waited upon by a limping figure, Hephaistos, who though a god himself, is diminished by his injuries. The story of his humiliating injury, at the hands of Zeus, is cruel and sad and evokes our sympathy. Hephaistos had the misfortune to find himself caught between his mother Hera and the rage of Zeus towards his saucy wife. In attempting to protect her, Hephaistos is hurled from heaven in a fall so profound it takes three days. He is crippled ever after and doomed to serve the needs of the more luminous beings that populate Olympus.
Homer’s account poses Hephaistos as a noble being, and the mockery directed at him by his glorious superiors is hateful and mean:
[Hephaistos] spoke, and the goddess of the white arms Hera smiled at him,
And smiling she accepted the goblet out of her son’s hand.
Thereafter beginning from the left he poured drinks for the other
Gods, dipping up from the mixing bowl the sweet nectar.
But among the blessed immortals uncontrollable laughter
went up as they saw Hephaistos bustling about the palace. (Bk I, 595-600)
His service to them, as well as his broken gait, makes him an object of ridicule. Homer underscores how unjust this is when he tells us that these cruel aristocrats in their exquisite leisure retire to palaces Hephaistos built for them:
Afterwards, when the light of the flaming sun went under
they went away each one to sleep in his home where
for each one the far–renowned strong-handed Hephaistos
had built a house by means of his craftsmanship and cunning. (Bk I, 605-608)
We may wonder how Hephaistos could serve as a divinity that excites ones soul to emulation and provides strength to guide one’s life and actions. He is lame and unpleasant in appearance and has been reduced to humble servitude to the superior gods. And yet, Hephaistos is a divinity, and has won the devotion of none other than Homer himself. Hephaistos, the god of craftsmanship, is the god that Homer follows. We like to think that poets benefit from their muses, those wispy beings that inspire them. However, Homer knows that poets execute a craft as demanding as silversmiths and sculptors and metal-workers at their forge. Like Hephaistos, Homer possesses the extraordinary powers to lend the appearance of life to mere objects of his magical craft.
Homer introduces Hephaistos at the conclusion of Book One of The Iliad, a position of emphasis seemingly unsuitable for a mere mention. Hephaistos does not re-appear until the critical moment (Book 18) when Achilleus, enraged by the death of his beloved comrade Patroklus, forsakes his brooding and decides to re-enter the war. Patroklus had been wearing the battle-armor of Achilleus, and Hektor, a Trojan hero of prodigious strength, has carried the armor away as a prize of war. Achilleus tells his mother, the river goddess Thetis, that he accepts his doom, the fate that he will succeed in killing Hektor but will die soon after. Thetis, who cared for the injured Hephaistos when he was tossed from the heavens out of Olympus, travels to Hephaistos’ dark underworld workshop to enlist his help in fashioning new armor for her son. Homer then devotes 130 lines (Bk. XVIII, 478-608) to describing the embellishments of the famous shield of Achilleus.
While many have commented on this brilliant passage, the point is to link the skill of Hephaistos with Homer’s own. Multiple sets of people appear on the shield, each engaged in a separate drama. In one panel, two cities are depicted. One celebrates a marriage festival:
They were leading the brides along the city from their maiden chambers under the flaring of torches, and the loud bride song was arising.
The young men followed the circles of the dance and among them
the flutes and lyres kept up their clamour as in the meantime
the women standing each at the door of her court admired them.
Surely there is magic here. The figures are seen, but in addition they are heard, and they are also in motion, and they interact with one another. What skill is required to bring these inanimate figures alive!
The second panel depicts a complex war narrative, including an elaborate account of strategies and their devising: one scene gives way to another in a complex thread of implication and result. Given that this narrative must be contained within a limited space or the shield would become too immense even for Achilleus to manage, we are hard pressed to know how this could be done. The details of the battle alone show the shifts of fortune as victory tilts from one side to the other. In the end Homer tells us: “All closed together like living men and fought with each other/ and dragged away from each other the corpses of those who had fallen” (540-541). Although these figures are depicted in brass and gold, they are “like living men” and extend their efforts to arduous battle. Unlike Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” where the figures are static and their motion and imagined sound happen only in the mind of the viewer, the figures on the shield of Achilleus are blessed with sound and motion and acquire the space for a complex narrative.
Who but a god could accomplish such magic? Homer himself has done just that in The Iliad, where a portrayal of reality unfolds before us in mere words. Through Homer’s craftsmanship we experience all the drama and motion of the “ringing plains of windy Troy”: the sound and mayhem of battle, the inner worlds of those who die, the glory in the taste of victory, and the acid of humiliation for those who fail the test of courage. Hephaistos is lame and disfigured and yet creates gods and heroes out of metal and fire. Homer, a blind poet, makes his heroes live again and makes us see them.
Gods among us
Sappho creates brilliant poetry by embracing the goddess Aphrodite, without restraint. Odysseus triumphs over monstrous giants and the menacing vengeance of Poseidon by shaping himself, as much as a human being can, to the powers of Athena. Homer’s devotion to Hephaistos, the humiliated god of craftsmanship, allows him to fashion his brilliant poem and make his narrative, his characters, and the drama of his scenes come alive, as if by magic. None of these devotions are anything like those advanced by Christianity. For the Christian world, these devotions resemble Faustian pacts with devils by which human beings trade their immortal souls for super-human powers.
It must be that the Greeks looked about and noticed among them individuals who possessed extraordinary skills and powers. How account, in our world, for a Michael Jordan who appeared to have the power of flight and perfect agility, levitating beyond gravity? Isn’t it clear that Hermes lifts him and blesses him with extraordinary agility? To what god did Picasso pay his devotions to ensure that every stroke would fascinate us? Do we really believe that Hephaistos did not hover above the head of Steve Jobs? What price did Aphrodite exact to allow Norma Jean Baker to enthrall a generation as Marilyn Monroe? What would your life be were you able to identify which god of human powers resides in you and commit to that god with absolute devotion?
The tradition that Christian authorities destroyed the writings of Sappho is certainly plausible. Her poetry was erotic and immoral. Her fierce dedication to Aphrodite swept aside all other matters, such as fairness to the object of her desire and her own stability and consistency. The cunning powers of Odysseus to trick others by his words, earned him a place in Dante’s Inferno, not far from Satan himself, the father of lies. The energy of his restless seeking, and the construction of his own heroic self, count for nothing in the Christian world where humility and service to God and others is paramount. The artist devoted solely to art becomes a mad scientist in the Christian world, as in Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” Aphrodite rewards Pygmalion for skillfully investing stone with the force of his longing; in our world, Dr. Frankenstein is punished for reaching with technical skill beyond the world God made.
As noted earlier, the core Christian statement of this hostility to the gods of the ancient world and their power appears in 1 Corinthians 13. This magnificent rhapsody by Paul celebrates caring (charity; love) above all else. The power of rhetoric, so prized among the ancients, is worth little; speaking “with the tongues of mortals and angels” has no value if caring is absent. “Prophetic powers” and understanding of “all mysteries and all knowledge” is worthless without the humble acceptance that all human knowledge is imperfect and will be eclipsed by a forthcoming revelation. Aggression, self-confidence, heroic self-assertion fade to insignificance compared with “faith, hope, and charity.” Christianity celebrates the comfort and stability of the community under God’s law of perfect love, and rejects the assertions of heroic self-seeking, whether the field is war, the arts, the pursuit of knowledge, or pleasure.
Were the Greeks religious? They slaughtered prized animals to offer them to these gods (once they stopped sacrificing their children); they made perilous journeys to distant sacred sites; in frenzies, they sometimes mutilated their bodies; they built elaborate shrines at great costs, supported a powerful priesthood; made life choices based upon auguries; and solidified communal values in deeply felt rituals. Is this religion or fairy stories?
Sappho’s devotional poetry, then, poses serious challenges for us, her late and alien readers. What does it mean to devote oneself without restraint to Aphrodite? While we hope our political and military leaders are steeped in goodness, we expect them also to be cunning strategists, able to face down the monsters that threaten us. In the creations of our most gifted artists we are offered the opportunity to participate in perfection. What does it cost us to respond without limit and without regard for life’s conveniences and the normal orderly protections of moderated desire? How do we imagine respect for a fellow human being who is a daughter, or son, of Aphrodite, Athena, or Hephaistos? In the face of these differences, we are forced to consider what has become of our gods and goddesses. And who are we without them? In the absence of such gods, what things or thoughts or powers can make our unbright earth shine? And how would we worship them?