οὐδὲ βοῶν ἐλατῆρι κραταιῷ φωτὶ ἔοικα,
οὐδ’ ἐμὸν ἔργον τοῦτο, πάρος δέ μοι ἄλλα μέμηλεν·
ὕπνος ἐμοί γε μέμηλε καὶ ἡμετέρης γάλα μητρός,
σπάργανά τ’ ἀμφ’ ὤμοισιν ἔχειν καὶ θερμὰ λοετρά.
I sure don’t look like a tough cattle rustler –
that’s not my bag. I’m interested in other stuff:
like sleep, and our mommy’s milk,
and swaddling around my shoulders, and a warm bath.
Spoken by baby Hermes to Apollo
(Homeric Hymn to Hermes [4.] 265-268)
The divine is everywhere in ancient Greek literature, beginning with Homer. There, gods constantly insert themselves into human affairs or parallel their actions; heroes invoke them at every turn, and gods in their turn feel little compunction about their own often disgraceful conduct.
Many of the Greek gods had antecedents and contemporaries in ancient Near Eastern cultures, where divinity tended to be either theriomorphic, as in Egypt, or largely incorporeal, as in Hebraic tradition. The Greeks changed all that by conceptualizing them as vividly anthropomorphic – and idealizingly so, at least in appearances – and, in the process, changed a great deal more than just the external shape of the divine.
How many scurrilous anecdotes at Yahweh’s expense do we find in the Old Testament? How many jokes about Jesus in the New Testament? Quite unlike the deep spiritual religiosity and ethical standards that underpin Judaeo-Christian monotheism, polytheism among the ancient Greeks tended to be much more a matter of serviceable pragmatism (“I need your help [in battle, love, athletic contest] right this minute!”) and even contractual obligations (“Remember the bulls I sacrificed to you last year!” or, “Get me out of this mess, and I’ll build you a temple when I return home!”). To the extent that ethics in our sense applied at all, it didn’t amount to much more than “helping your friends and harming your enemies,” and in any event, on this score the gods could hardly occupy the high moral ground with a straight face.
By reducing so vastly the psychic distance between human and divine, and to a certain extent merging the two realms, the Greeks tended to humanize their gods to an extraordinary degree and simultaneously fire humans with a scintilla of the divine. The latter phenomenon is seen most vividly in the genealogies of heroes, who invariably have one human parent and one divine parent; and the humanization lurks in the flawed interior lives of gods and is on unashamed display in the human comeliness that marks them in the plastic art of the classical period.
Among attractive features with which the Greeks invested their gods was a sense of humor. In the very first book of the Iliad, for example, a big bash is in progress at Zeus’ place, and the gods are having such a terrific time that “unquenchable laughter” [ἄσβεστος … γέλως] (1.599) arose. And in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, which deals with the latter’s robbery, shortly after his birth, of Apollo’s cattle, this sense of humor takes on furtive, thievish overtones. Already as a mere babe, this god, who was to become the powerful guarantor of commercial transactions, shows the larceny in his heart – perhaps a comment on the nature of ancient commerce. Not only does he steal the cattle of Apollo by making them march into a cave with their hooves turned around so as to confuse anyone tracking them, but he then lies with angelic impudence about his theft, claiming that no one still in diapers like himself could possibly have done anything so dastardly.
Hermes’ father, Zeus, who knows the facts, would seem to us a poor rôle model here, for instead of being angry at this juvenile delinquent of a son, we are told that “Zeus burst out in a great laugh when he saw that his crafty cunning kid was denying everything about the cattle with such skill and sophistication” [Ζεὺς δὲ μέγ’ ἐξεγέλασσεν ἰδὼν κακομηδέα παῖδα / εὖ καὶ ἐπισταμένως ἀρνεύμενον ἀμφὶ βόεσσιν] (Homeric Hymn 4.389-390).
The sensibility about deity that informs these incidents – and many more like them dispersed throughout Greek literature – seems utterly foreign to a Judaeo-Christian sensibility, even sacrilegious, and is certainly one of many indices pointing out how different the ancient Greeks in many respects were from us today. In consequence, moreover, it’s been observed that the ancient Greeks did not live so much in a guilt-culture, as we do, where you have to deal with severe internal discomfort about disappointing or violating ethical canons of man or God, but in a shame-culture, where anxiety focuses rather on a fear that your honor has been desecrated in some way and that you have yourself become an object of public ridicule. This notion certainly feeds right into the obsessive hunger, especially in archaic Greek thinking, for praise, and its corollary, the desire to starve vituperation.
I do not presume to say which cultural phenotype of the numinous genotype is more appealing. For me the important point in all of this is that underlying each, however differently manifested, is an abiding conviction in a power outside and greater than self.