The God of Scripture is totally unlike the gods in Homer. There should be no reason to be ashamed of Him. However, the early church fathers were embarrassed because the God of Scripture did not match the reified God of immutability, simplicity and eternality. They could only accept a few of the Old Testament declarations of God’s nature, his righteousness and his holiness. The rest of the Old Testament had to be “spiritually” interpreted in a way that sanitized the egresses of a mutable God.
A couple sentences cannot provide due understanding about the perversions of the Greek Pantheon and why the philosophers rightfully despised them. It is important to see the behavior of these Gods so that one can see quickly how little the God of the Old Testament has in common with them. In fact, when properly understood, there is no need to spiritualize the God of the Old Testament to avoid the commonalities with the Greek gods.
Homer is revered as the greatest of the ancient Greek poets. He is credited with composing the works The Iliad and The Odyssey, but as oral poems which were not committed to writing until centuries later. Hesiod, another Greek oral poet thought to be a contemporary of Homer (BC 750 and 650 BC), was the author of Theogeny, which describes the cosmogony of the Greek gods. This literature represents the beginning of the traditions of Western literature. To the Greeks, these works were much more important than mere literary devises. They are credited with establishing Greek religious doctrines and customs.
For Greek culture even up to the Hellenized age, the myths of the Gods of Greece were influential in moral and religious life. The Greeks were certainly not some form of primitive Christianity before Christ, not even in the subsequent form of Greek religion called Platonism. They had developed a sophisticated culture with a foundational appreciation of philosophy, politics and art.
The Hellenized world of the early church fathers had a high regard for education comparable to our current culture. “We are given over to Grammar,” says Sextus Empiricus, “from childhood, and almost from our baby-clothes.” The main subject-matter of this literary education was the poets. Grammar included the study of diction which included a musical element in refined Greek. “I owe to Alexander,” says Marcus Aurelius, “my habit of not finding fault, and of not using abusive language to those who utter a barbarous of awkward or unmusical phrase.” Two centuries after Marcus Aurelius, a Christian Father would apologize for spending too much time in the Bible reading Moses and Elijah. “I must apologize for the style of this letter,” says the Christian Father Basil, in writing to his teacher. “The truth is, I have been in the company of Moses and Elias, and men of that kind, who tell us what is no doubt true but in a barbarous dialect so that your instructions have quite gone out of my head.” Not only the Old Testament, but the New Testament written in Greek is somewhat of an embarrassment to Church Fathers. A barbarian speaks in language that lacks meter and rhyme. For Greek dialects, the less musical style of Koine Greek, written by Paul and the apostles, is closer to barbarian Greek.
Homer and Hesiod were read, not only for their literary value, but also for their moral and theological value. As zealously as Christians would read their Bibles, the Greeks would read the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Theogeny. They were memorized and quoted. A quotation from Homer was apropos to every social event. Homer’s works (Hesiod is considered a little clumsier by scholars) are presented in the form of speeches and serve as archetypal examples in persuasive speaking and writing.
What was the source of their authority as authors of such revered religious material? Homer cites the Muses, the goddesses and a reference to himself as the wandering poet, a position in Greek life similar to what a prophet retains in the Old Testament. According to Hesiod, The Muses were daughters of Zeus and of Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. Homer’s request to the Muses both in the Iliad and Odyssey represent his prayer to his gods to help him tell the story. The Muses are often presented as a symbol as a source of inspiration and artistic creation which begin the epic poems of Greek literature.
Introduction to The Odyssey:
Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all ways of contending,
the wanderer, harried for years on end,
after he plundered the stronghold
on the proud height of Troy.
Introduction to The Iliad:
Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
Introduction to The Theogony of Hesiod:
From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing…
And one day they taught Hesiod glorious song while he was shepherding his lambs under holy Helicon, and this word first the goddesses said to me — the Muses of Olympus, daughters of Zeus who holds the aegis…
In the last example, the Muses commission Hesiod into the prophetic world of prophecy which included not only the gift of inspiration but also the ability of composing prophecy as poetry. The gift is delivered by breathing the divine voice into him. A staff representing his access to prophetic is presented to him.
In the Hebrew-Christian world view, inspiration comes from God. In the Greek world view, individual gods and goddesses have defined functions which distinguish their personalities and vocations. The Muses were the source of inspiration for the Greeks. The Hebrews produced prophets to convey the Truth of God to the common people. The Greeks produced poets.
As a poet, their proof of authority was amplified by a certain rhetorical quality of verse that had rhyme, meter, and music. Their prestige and authority as prophets depended on their possession of a divine knowledge not available or evident to the common man. The Muses inspired both content and delivery. The common man accepted the poet’s prophetic stories of divine knowledge on account of verifiable truths in the phenomenal world, their skill at presented such truths, and the claim of divine inspiration.
Of course the epic poems about the creation of the world and ancient events were not verifiable truth events. Most stories were accepted on the grounds of claims to divine inspiration and the poetic quality of the verses.
The song’s “form of words” (μορφὴ ἐπέων) or method of poetic articulation is additional evidence that the events are fairly represented. In the Odyssey, Alcinous suggests liars and cheats have unordered words while Odyseus’ poetic presentation suggests an accurate representation:
Then again Alcinous made answer and said:“Odysseus, in no wise as we look on thee do we deem this of thee, that thou art a cheat and a dissembler, such as are many whom the dark earth breeds scattered far and wide, men that fashion lies out of what no man can even see. But upon thee is grace of words (μορφὴ ἐπέων), and within thee is a heart of wisdom, and thy tale thou hast told with skill, as doth a minstrel, even the grievous woes of all the Argives and of thine own self. But come, tell me this, and declare it truly, whether thou sawest any of thy godlike comrades, (Hom. Od. 11.364-370)
What kind of gods do Homer and Hesiod present to the world? Beginning with the creation myths in the Theogeny of Hesiod, the squabbles between the Greek gods are evident to all. Gaia (mother earth) and Uranus (father) beget children. Their children would come as two sets of triplets and one group of twelve called Titans or giants. The first set of triplets was called Hecatoncheires, with fifty heads and a hundred arms. The second set of three was the Cyclopes having only one eye in the middle of the forehead.
Uranus favored the Titans, but loathed and feared the Hecatoncheires and the Cyclopes. To control these two sets of triplets, he imprisons them in Tartarus, a place of deep underground caverns. Peter uses the same term to describe the lower depths of hell.
2 Peter 2:4 For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment;
The word translated “pits of darkness” is literally the pits of Tartarus.
Gaia would scheme against her husband and appeal to Cronos (one of the Titans) to free her other children. In a conspiratorial act, while Uranus and Gaia were in a compromising position, Cronos attacked Uranus and castrated him with a sickle while his genitals were exposed. This event is still celebrated in Western Civilization in our depiction of Father Time, Cronos, marching off with his sickle.
After disposing of Uranus, Cronus did not release his siblings the Hecatonchires and the Cyclopes but sent them to back to Tarturus, with the dragon Campe guarding them. Cronos and his sister Rhea became king and queen of the world. Cronus ruled during a period of time that is known as the Golden Age. During the Golden Age, there is no need for laws or rules. Everyone does what is right and there is no immorality.
Being warned in a prophecy about his own downfall, Cronos, instead of imprisoning his children, swallowed them. Rhea conspires against her husband and the sixth baby, a young child called Zeus, escapes the fate. Rhea deceived Cronos by giving him a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes in the place of her child. Cronos swallowed the stone instead of Zeus.
After reaching adulthood, Zeus poisoned Cronos by deception. Cronos then vomited up the swallowed children, who were now adults. This started a war of retaliation with their father, which almost destroyed the universe. In desperation, Zeus, traveled into the underworld, released the Hecatoncheires and Cyclopes, who defeated the Titan army.
Castrating your father, imprisoning your children, envying your father’s wealth, eating your children and conspiring against your husband, and deserting your allies are not the actions to be emulated by human beings. These deeds are the product of vile and debased minds, as the apostle Paul says in Romans:
Romans 1:28-30 (NKJV) 28 And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; 29 being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are whisperers, 30 backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents,
This is unrighteousness behavior even by pagan standards. However, the mythological Greek gods could be described as nearly any one of these characteristics. Each god has a physical appearance which may change according their purpose. Each god has unique personal qualities that are clearly defined and distinguishable from other gods and goddesses.
Each god has his own thoughts, feelings, and motivations. The gods can be deceptive, using disguises and lies, to entice a human to commit a particular act.
Far from being transcendent, the world of the gods and the world of men are both affected by and affect one another. The gods are intimately and pervasively present. Human actions change and inspire unplanned divine responses. Although men are open to influence from the gods, their actions are not determined by the gods but are affected by divine manipulation. The gods are involved in the world of men bringing plagues, punishments, justice and injustice sometimes from afar and sometimes face to face.
Distinctions between the Pantheon and man are difficult to see and trivial at best. In the Greek world of heroes and gods, the heroes are theomorphic, like the gods, and the gods are anthropomorphic like the humans. The gods have bodies with feet, legs, arms, hands, bellies, and heads. The gods do not shed blood, but they do shed ichor (Il. 5.330-352). The gods do not drink the common wine or eat common bread but they do eat ambrosia. Although the gods are immortal, they need sustenance, are wounded, feel pain, are in danger of dying or at least perishing, and have been begotten and born.
Even their social relations are the same as humans; Zeus and Hera are married, Ares and Aphrodite commit adultery (Od.8.266-366), they eat (Il.1.601-604), and they sleep (Il.14.352-353).
Sometimes Homer is not consistent with his own depictions of the gods. Homer’s gods are immortal (ἀθάνατοι), more powerful than men (θεοὶ δέ τε φέρτεροι ἀνδρῶν, Il. 21.264), able to do all things (θεοὶ δέ τε πάντα δύνανται, Od. 10.306), and have omniscience (θεοὶ δέ τε πάντα ἴσασιν, Od. 4.379). If the gods know all things, especially Venus, why would she expose herself in battle in the first place and why would Zeus allow her. None of the gods participating in the battle are all powerful, even Mars is wounded in battle. The gods are immortal yet experience birth and are said to be able to perish. Logical consistency in these stories was not always necessary. In fact there are many conflicting stories and impossible situations which are accepted as facts.
The appearance of a coherent and systematic theology on the nature of God was not deemed necessary until the Greeks changed their proof of God from revelation and the observance of nature to a new method of discernment: syllogism and logic. But to make such a shift, revelation from the gods had to be discredited.
Discrediting the gods could be done because of their dishonesty and confusion. The gods could play fast and loose with the truth. Zeus deceives, deception is often valued as a personal attribute, and the Muses may have their own reasons for deception. In the introduction of the Theogeny, where Hesiod explains his calling to a poet-prophet, the Muses reveal their purpose and his commission.
and this word first the goddesses said to me — the Muses of Olympus, daughters of Zeus who holds the aegis: `Shepherds of the wilderness, wretched things of shame, mere bellies, we know how to speak many false things as though they were true; but we know, when we will, to utter true things.’ (Theogeny ll. 26-28)
Sometimes the signs are true but the interpretation is incompetently applied.
Whosoever shall come guided by the call and flight of birds of sure omen, that man shall have advantage through my voice, and I will not deceive him. But whoso shall trust to idly-chattering birds and shall seek to invoke my prophetic art contrary to my will, and to understand more than the eternal gods, I declare that he shall come on an idle journey; yet his gifts I would take.(Homeric Hymn to Hermes 541-549)
Sometimes the gods lie. Sometimes the gods are unreliable. Coupling untrustworthiness with the immoral behavior of the gods, the Greeks became disillusioned with the gods of Homer and Hesiod. This would soon lead to the deprecation of inspiration from the gods. It was no longer enough to claim divine inspiration. For a conceptualization of god to be believable, god had to be rationally creditable. God had to be run through the maze of perfection and logical syllogism. But revelation would not be abandoned immediately.
In the early 5th century Xenophanes of Colophon criticized the anthropomorphism of Greek mythology. His works are only fragments, even the name of his surviving work “On Nature” is not known with any certainty. In fragments B11 and B12 he explains his disgust with the popular religion of his day.
Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods
all sorts of things that are matters of reproach and censure among men:
theft, adultery, and mutual deception. (B11)
…as they sang of numerous illicit divine deeds:
theft, adultery, and mutual deceit. (B12)
Plato would agree with Xenophanes on the disgusting representation of the gods of Greek mythology. Writing in the voice of Adeimantus in Book III of The Republic, he says to Socrates:
And let us equally refuse to believe, or allow to be repeated, the tale of Theseus son of Poseidon, or of Peirithous son of Zeus, going forth as they did to perpetrate a horrid rape; or of any other hero or son of a god daring to do such impious and dreadful things as they falsely ascribe to them in our day: and let us further compel the poets to declare either that these acts were not done by them, or that they were not the sons of gods; –both in the same breath they shall not be permitted to affirm. We will not have them trying to persuade our youth that the gods are the authors of evil, and that heroes are no better than men-sentiments which, as we were saying, are neither pious nor true, for we have already proved that evil cannot come from the gods.
The reaction of the Greek philosophers against the immorality of the gods of mythology would fuel the fundamental characteristics of the new god of Greek philosophy. Parmenides would offer a transition from the anthropomorphic gods to the transcendent and remote god of Greek philosophy. At the same time inspiration from god or the gods would be deprecated in favor of the logic and deductive reasoning.