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A while back, cadhla wrote something that you might have seen: "Why Coyote doesn't give commandments." It's an amazing piece of work, alternately funny and profound, and I'm deeply jealous that I didn't write something like it first. Check it out, if you haven't already. But anyway, since then I've been thinking, off and on, as to what a Ten Commandments list would look like if we were to try to compile the ten most important religious commandments and ethical precepts from ancient Hellenic paganism. If you look at the date on Cadhla's article, yes, that means I've been working on it for just a day or two short of a month, and I'm still not happy with what I've got. Here's what I've got so far.

Never forget, nor fail to take into account, that there are many invisible gods and spirits above you, below you, and perhaps even from time to time beside you. Nothing that mortals do obligates the gods to reward it in this life, nor binds the gods to punish it in this life. Still, if the natural rewards for virtue are not sufficient to motivate you to a life of virtue, and if the natural consequences of vice are not sufficient to deter a life of vice, and if the laws of your city mean nothing to you, remember this. Some day, your life may well be hopeless without the intervention of a god. Those whom the gods choose to reward are rewarded, and those whom the gods choose to punish are punished, no matter what mortal agency attempts to prevent it.

I. Above all else, honor the three Great Commandments, for they bind even the very gods themselves, who do not escape judgment themselves if they seek to break them. If you would earn the favor of the blessed gods who live for ever, and avoid their displeasure, the first Great Commandment is this: Know thyself. Know your strengths, and develop them, and rely on them. Know your limitations, and do not promise more than you can deliver. Above all else, thou shalt not lie to thyself about things that you know to be true, for down that path lies madness and ruin.

II. The second Great Commandment is like unto the first: Nothing in excess. There is nothing in the life of any mortal, or any god, that is so good that an infinite, endless amount of it is also good. There is nothing in the life of any mortal, or any god, that is so awful that it may never, ever find appropriate application. Seek the middle ground between excess and lack, between too much and not enough.

III. Finally, the third Great Commandment is this: Violate no sworn oath, and swear no false oath.

IV. Avoid hubris at all costs, for there is no sin more likely to provoke divine wrath. They are the blessed gods who live forever. You are not. Never compare yourself or anyone else favorably to a god. Nor seek to live your life by the example of the gods. You are not deathless. You do not possess godlike power. Blood, not ichor, flows your veins. Ambrosia and nectar are not your daily food and drink. If you were to seek to live the life of a god, or to arrogate to yourself the powers and privileges of a god, or to think yourself the equal or superior of a god in any skill or power, you would almost surely destroy yourself if the gods themselves did not do it for you.

V. The temple of any god, and all the property thereof, and all the priests thereof are sacred to all the gods. The person of a ruler is sacred to Zeus, as is the person of any employee of the public. The person of the mother of a dependent child is sacred to Hera, as is every member of your own family. The person of every child is sacred to Artemis, and many other lovely goddesses. The person of an ambassador is sacred to Hermes. The person of an actor is sacred to Dionysus. Take not any sacred thing, nor harm any sacred thing or person, lest the weapons of all mankind rise against you and the anger of all the gods befall you.

VI. Commit no murder, nor knowingly assist a murderer in escaping justice, nor fail to do anything you can do to ensure that justice is done to a murderer. From every murder that ends not in justice, a cloud of pollution arises that stands between your city and any hope of divine protection in time of need, for Zeus, the son of Chronos and Rhea who bears the Aegis, loves justice.

VII. Do not steal, either by force or deception. Should you find yourself in a position to dispense justice, never fail to punish thieves appropriately, showing mercy only under the rarest and most extraordinary of circumstances. One form of theft stands above all others however, and may never be forgiven, not in this life or the next. Any city that does not put out from among their midst any who commit this vile act risks the enduring wrath of the gods, and it is this: If you are placed into a position of public responsibility, take not one unearned penny for yourself, nor take even the tiniest bribe to influence how you administer that office. Places where this is tolerated without dissension or opprobrium or repentance shall surely be punished by justice-loving Zeus, nor until justice is done against those who abuse the public trust shall any who live there obtain reward from any of the blessed gods, for for all the gods fear angering the father of gods and men.

VIII. Love whom you will, for all love is a gift of a god. However, let not any love, or any act of love, cause you to fail in any way to have a family, and love that family, and nurture your family before all others, for the marriage altar and the marriage bed are the altars of the queen of all the gods. Upon a city that encourages people to escape the obligations of family, Hera will surely eventually pile up sorrows.

XIX. Whether obtained by skill given as a gift by a god, or the strength of your arm and your back which is the gift of a god, or by any cleverness given by a god, or a by the spirit of perseverance and patience lent to you by a god, all honestly earned wealth is a gift of a god. You would not have it if the gods did not want you to have it, nor would the gods give you the gifts that enable mortals to pile up wealth if they didn't want you to use them. But know this: the gods gave you those gifts because they trusted you to do what was right with the gain from them. Seek to provide for your own needs, and the needs of your family. However, never turn away a hungry person from your door unfed while you have any food in your house, lest you anger a god. Nor fail, if good fortune and proper use of the gods' gifts makes you wealthy, to share some of that wealth freely with your guests, with your friends, with your neighborhood, and with your city and its temples, in every way that is customary, lest the gods raise up somebody else to take it away from you by skill, or hard work, or force.

X. Let every man keep clean whatever armor the gods give him the means to afford, and keep his shield repaired, and keep his weapon sharp, and keep his weapon arm ever ready to fight for his city and his nation, until all strength fail him. In any nation where custom places the same obligation upon women, neither let any of them neglect these things. No city whose residents are not ready to fight for it shall ever prosper in the sight of the blessed gods who live forever.


( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 29th, 2005 08:16 am (UTC)
Absolutely fascinating.

I have some thoughts, right off. While a devote of Dionysos, I am not a Hellenic Reconstructionist. Perhaps some of the questions I have would be answered already if I were.

Minor stylistic note: I could do without the "thee"s and "thou"s. They sometimes act as textual speedbumps.

To an ancient Greek, what counts as "city" or "family" would be better defined than it might be to a modern reader. How do those terms apply here and now? Is my city Hayward, California? Or should I take "city" as more metaphoric, to mean my nation-state?

Dude, if every unavenged murder causes a cloud, Oakland CA must be completely hidden from the sight of the gods. So how do those of us who are neither in a position to enact or serve justice in these crimes cope with the fact of thier effect upon our chances of divine favor?

Both of these points (I now realize) have at heart the same issue: there are so many complexities and so many people involved in a modern city. Population-wise, the Bay Area could swallow five or six poli whole. So much is beyond the reach of any one of us, that we are all frankly doomed by the splatter effect of breaking the commandments above.

These are a work in progress, I understand. Sadly, I am too addled by fatigue to make a more constructive response. I just couldn't let it go by unremarked, though.

Thanks for sharing. Mind if I add you?
Sep. 29th, 2005 11:30 am (UTC)
You're welcome, and of course you can add me. I write this stuff to be read.

I left city and family vague because as times change, the definitions need to change. These are the things that they believed; it is exactly up to us to decide how to apply this.

And as for miasma (the Greek work for the "pollution" that comes from severe injustice) ... Oakland isn't a particularly wealthy city, either, is it? The way I see it, miasma, like all pollutants, is a relative thing. I'd bet money that many cities have been blessed or at least rescued at least once by divine intervention while there were a couple of unsolved murders on the books. But to extend the metaphor, if you're in Phoenix, AZ, on a relatively clear day you can see the mountains in the distance, even though there's still some pollution in the air. But on bad days, forget it. Do we know how many unsolved murders, in what size area, per capita or overall, is too many for the gods to willingly peer through their miasma? No. Better to err on the side of caution then, eh?

And unsolved murders do tear down a city, but what tears down a city even faster, even if you leave the gods out of it, is a city with a culture that makes murder investigations difficult or impossible. Can a city actually thrive with dirty cops? Or indifferent, incompetent juries who sympathize with the murderers? Or with people getting away with rampant witness intimidation?

As for what's your responsibility, as a citizen who isn't a cop? Well, you're a voter, aren't you? Make sure you vote for people who can be trusted to administer justice. You're eligible for jury duty, aren't you? If you are called, serve faithfully. Some day, may the gods forbid, you may witness a murder. If so, then be a hero, even if you live in a city with crooked cops or rampant witness intimidation; if it means you died for your city, there are few things more honorable in the sight of the gods, and by giving the people around you an example of a hero, you increase the odds that others will work for justice, and after all, you have friends and family who'll survive you; care about them. And if after all of that, you conclude that it just isn't safe where you're at, because nothing in this generation will bring sufficient justice not to make the city an eyesore before the gods? Move, and take your friends and family with you if you can, before catastrophe hits you along with the city you're leaving behind.

Anyway, that's how I'd interpret it.
Sep. 29th, 2005 03:04 pm (UTC)
Does all this apply equally or perhaps more so to cities which carelessly convict innocent people?
Sep. 29th, 2005 03:20 pm (UTC)
By definition. Because every time you convict an innocent person, not only has injustice been done, but perhaps just as bad, the actual murderer went free.
Sep. 30th, 2005 12:51 am (UTC)
I would also read into this an obligation to PREVENT murders by any means possible. This would include instructing yourself and your loved ones in the rudiments of self-defense, insuring that you and those you are responsible for maintain good security, making sure that everyone knows that life is far more important than property if confronted by a thief (especially an armed thief), and being willing and able to call for help and/or directly confront a potential murderer, whichever seems wisest and/or safest at the time. Knowing first aid would be good, too.
Sep. 29th, 2005 09:54 am (UTC)
Permission to link to this from my own lj? :)
Sep. 29th, 2005 11:25 am (UTC)
Of course. You may assume the right to link to any of my entries. Heck, as far as I'm concerned, if people put it up on LJ with public security, they've granted the right to link to it. This is the World Wide Web, that's how it works. Anybody who thinks otherwise is a fool.
Sep. 29th, 2005 11:30 am (UTC)
I just like to ask out of politeness--I have a huge friends list so you may get a lot of people coming in. :)
Sep. 29th, 2005 05:05 pm (UTC)

Shall VIII. be interpreted that homosexuality is ok, provided you do your duty to procreate? Otherwise, how should the statment "Let not... cause you to fail in any way to have a family" be interpreted?

Sep. 29th, 2005 05:13 pm (UTC)
Homosexuality, prostitution, you name it ... as long as it didn't interfere with your marrying someone of the opposite sex, having children, raising children, and providing for them. That's what they believed the gods had ordained, anyway.
Sep. 29th, 2005 05:40 pm (UTC)
I wondered about that as well. I know families are sacred to Hera, but I wonder if she'd accept more modern constructions of them. If same-sex marriage becomes more widely available, and couples either had children (as many do already) or adopted, do you think she'd accept this?

And doesn't this leave infertile couples out as well, otherwise?

In any case, this was a good read and an interesting encapsulation of a bunch of your personal themes that come up a lot.
Sep. 29th, 2005 05:55 pm (UTC)
She (presumbably) accepted a wide range of marital arrangements in Ancient Greece. Marriage in Athens was a very different animal than marriage in, say, Sparta. I personally see Hera as being more concerned with being true to vows you make to your lover(s) and less with what those vows actually are.
Sep. 29th, 2005 07:47 pm (UTC)
In addition to what cjmarbutt said, let me add that up until the late Renaissance, marriage was primarily an economic relationship.

Unless you got lucky and inherited more land than, technically, you were legally allowed to (as many politicians did; land ownership law got pretty lax after the plague), it was nearly impossible to maintain a middle class lifestyle in and around Athens without both a husband and a wife. There were certain jobs that were basically off-limits to men, and certain jobs that were basically off-limits to women, and the net effect was that a successful farm or business basically needed one of each. I assume that they structured society in such a way because it's in everybody's best interest for parents to take care of kids, then kids to take care of parents; it keeps the elderly and small children from being a burden on society. As bare as existence was in early Greek times, as poor a country as they were, there wasn't a lot of wiggle room for poor and middle class to live non-standard lifestyles just for personal preference.
Sep. 29th, 2005 07:56 pm (UTC)
As for infertile couples, it seems from the general sensibleness of the list that the gods do not demand anything which is actually impossible, though they may demand things which get you killed. My best bet is that infertile people would be obligated to help blood relatives. Infertile couples (that is, pairs who are infertile with each other but have a reasonable chance of having children with someone else) would be obligated to conceive children somehow and support them.
Sep. 29th, 2005 08:18 pm (UTC)
When there's a need for it (as now), wouldn't adoption be as noble as having your own children? When I first read your list, I assumed the emphasis was more on not shirking the duty of having a stable family and raising productive members of a society, rather than jumping in the gene pool.
Sep. 29th, 2005 08:29 pm (UTC)
Seems plausible to me; somebody has to have been raising orphans. Or to foster children, which would have been just as likely, because up until the Athenian plague, there was a recurring problem of families with too many children. Once you've got two male heirs, if they both survive to the age of majority, and you can't persuade one of them to run off to the sea, you either have to split the farm, which is impractical (farm size, as laid out in Solon's constitution, was the minimum already), or you have to send one away, say, as part of a colonization venture. So while I can't think of any specific examples in the literature, it wouldn't astonish me if some childless couple were to find that one of their relatives had a spare kid or two to hand off to them.
Sep. 30th, 2005 08:03 am (UTC)

This was certainly true for Northern peoples- the Norse didn't care if men slept with men, or women women, as long as they had a family and kids first and foremost. What happened after that duty to society was over, was really their business.
Sep. 30th, 2005 08:01 am (UTC)

Hi! Like you, I enjoy any attempt to move towards a "code" of types, that sums up the things we Hellenes find sacred, a sort of thing that can help us to guide our lives.

Of course, you'll have no luck getting a "commandments" list by Hellenic Recons- they will resist any attempt like this, for the same reason most modern pagans will- the spirit of modern paganism is strongly independant, and any attempt to "codify" over much will be taken as an attack on some sense of "freedom". It will be seen as a move towards dogma- however, that's always sorta funny to hear, coming from most modern recons, who do not lack dogma!

Well, I just thought I'd share the code I live by- it is similar to what you wrote here, but simpler, shorter, and more free form, but it does cover most of the bases you tried to cover in your "commandments". It was written by Kouros Mystes, the author of the writings at Eleusinion http://www.thecrookedheath.com/syriktes/hall.htm

The Pagan's Morning Libation Prayer

Copyright © 2005 by Kouros Mystes

* * *

I address all of the Undying Gods, and the powers that dwell in this place, and I make this prayer to the Great Mother of Gods and Men.

I am human, and there have been times, when the tests of morality and honor have come to me, that I have failed them. Hard Fate and Necessity drew me far from my true home, and compelled me to wander in a place of tears and darkness, where confusion often reigns in my heart, even when I am thirsty for clarity.

Every man and woman's final day is fixed; if that day be today for me, and I walk down the ghost roads, do not look upon my failings, but upon the love that I have felt and shared- let that love make me worthy to stand pure among the pure.

Far-seeing spirit that walks side-by-side with me through this life, do not abandon me to the forgetfulness of death and Hades, but be with me in my time of greatest need, for we are of the same race, and from the same house.

If it is Fate that I should die through violence, let the violence that shatters this body be the force that purifies me; let the sword that kills me bring me to life. If it is Fate that I should linger and die of old age or sickness, let that suffering purify me, and let me be with those I love until I am no more.

I believe in justice and right, and I pledge now, as I pledge everyday, to honor the Undying Gods, reverence Nature, protect my fellow living beings when I can, and to uphold the Truth even if the cost to myself is high. I have done what I thought was right, and I can offer no better account of my life.

Immortal Gods, please let me share in your great wisdom and let me see what I must, to be beautiful inside and out, and be continually at peace with myself.

Every man and woman's final day is fixed; if that day be today for me, help me to be brave and give me the strength to endure what I must. Blessed Ancestors who forever watch unseen, count me worthy to feast in your company, and extend your power to protect those that I love and leave behind.

Great Mother of All Life, I cannot count the blessings you have filled my life with. On this day, as on every other, I place myself fully in your hands, trusting in your protection and your perfect wisdom.

Great Mother of Heaven, Earth, and Deep Underworld, Immortal Gods, and my honored grandmothers and grandfathers who have gone before, accept this prayer and bless this libation which I share with you now, and see it sealed and done as I have spoken.

Mar. 15th, 2007 03:58 pm (UTC)
I was inspired (more by cadhla than your good self, I'm afraid) to write my own.

Although they are ranked in importance, it should also be clear than number ten trumps all the others.
( 19 comments — Leave a comment )