January 28th, 2005

Dionysus

Why these particular historical gods?

When the first tiny little "kingdoms" start rebuilding after the archaic dark age, whether they had help from the blessed gods or not, they faced one very nearly insurmountable problem that I've already mentioned: Greece is a terrible place to try to build a bronze-age-style agricultural kingdom. This was even more true then than it is now, as climate data seems to suggest that as dry as Greece is now, it was dryer then. Non-salty water is scarce, and where you do find it, it tends to be on ground that's too nearly vertical to plant crops on. There's nowhere near enough pasturage to support any serious number of horses or cattle.

The Greeks eventually rose to this challenge through the development of a new model of agriculture, one not in use anywhere else in the world at the time. Conventional historians credit this to unknown human geniuses. The Greeks attributed it to gifts from the blessed gods; to an atheist or a Christian (but not to me) it is "obvious" that they were wrong and we are right, for all that they were a lot closer to the events than we are and we don't even have a contrary theory as to who the inventors were. But I digress. The special relevance of this agricultural model is not where it originated, since all agricultural societies attributed their success to the gods. The special relevance of this agricultural model is that in its uniqueness, it produced a uniquely valuable society.

Victor Davis Hanson documented this best in his excellent book, The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization. The Hellenic model of agriculture is one that is based very, very heavily on vinticulture and orchard crops. Not only draft animals, but even smaller animals are cultivated more for their uses than as a source of protein. Tiny fields of cereal crops are grown wherever they can be, but up until the middle classical period (by which time grain was being imported from Egypt again), breads and cakes and most grain products are a luxury item. Among the virtues of this model of agriculture is that it is so diversified that it doesn't produce one, or even two, large harvests; properly managed, it produces a steady supply of food throughout most of the year. As such, it just plain doesn't justify central granaries. Also, once the orchards and vines begin to fruit, there are big chunks of the year where there just isn't that much to do. So this particular way of life more than any other similarly large agricultural civilization discouraged centralization of authority, and left unusually large amounts of time for civic participation. So it is no accident that this is where democracy was invented, and trial by jury. What's more, because there are few or no large central granaries, there is no central administration of charity; individual farmsteads either rise and fall on their own, or are dependent on their closest neighbors for help in a crisis. You see this in Hesiod's Works and Days, one of the four sacred long poems that every Greek, free or slave, man or woman, was required to memorize before entering adulthood. No religion in all of human history has sacred scriptures that are so openly, cheerfully, nakedly entrepreneurial; compared to Works and Days even The Book of the Subgenius looks socialist. Works and Days is the only sacred scripture I know of in the entire world that contains two whole business plans!

Now let us take it as given that in addition to virtue producing its own rewards, and vice attracting its own punishments, these processes are helped along from time to time by intervention of the blessed gods. Imagining that, how would the gods of the early Greeks have reconciled this decentralized and striving economy and morality with the universal virtue, esteemed by all the world's gods and religions, "know thyself" -- which generally includes the implication "know thy place, and don't think to elevate yourself above it, who do you think you are?" But let me give you another example from the beginning of the classical era, one that took place well after the age when the gods walked openly among men: the Harmodion. Harmodius and Aristogeiton were male lovers whose lives were ruined by the "evil tyrant" Hipparchus. They died killing him. That same Hipparchus was not only the king of Athens, but a great-grandson of Poseidon himself. By the rules of every religion in the world, this is not only homicide but regicide, and not only regicide but practically deicide, the sort of gravest insult to the gods that brings an eternal curse onto a city. But centuries afterwards Athens was a learned and prosperous and militarily successful city, capital of a thriving empire. Harmodius and Aristogeiton were celebrated for centuries after their deaths as the Liberators, and every party and religious banquet in Athens began with the Harmodion, the hymn to Harmodius and Aristogeiton.

How did this come to be? Because this happened so late, we are not told what the gods themselves said to each other about this; no god came down to make us privy to their debates. But if you follow prior debates among the gods, and only the gods of the Greeks, you can see the precedent for this being laid. Zeus, father of gods and men, is not primarily a god of kings ... he is primarily a god of justice. In the eyes of Zeus, as with all blessed gods, an unsolved and/or unpropitiated murder is a terrible blot on a city -- but to Zeus it is no worse a blot than a broken contract, a lying oath, or a bribed judge. But there's more to it than that, there must be. And high on the list of reasons they gods in this place and time encouraged democracy and entrepreneurial capitalism must have been that, well, it was working. We don't know why the gods want human beings to thrive. OK, some individual gods have their own personal stakes. Prometheus, our maker, loves us and is proud of his workmanship. Zeus and many other gods have descendents among us. And, of course, there are the temple sacrifices, a much misunderstood subject that I'll come back to on another day. But for whatever reason, the gods of the ancient Greeks must have seen that because of the geographic and agricultural limitations of the land these people were living in, then in this place the fierce independence and love of freedom that they may well have inherited from the city burners themselves was not to be punished as blasphemy and hubristic pride and anarchistic lawlessness, but to be channelled and then encouraged and grown into a society both just and free.

What's that got to do with us? After all, that civilization passed away twenty three centuries ago. Very few of us live in Greece; the Greece of our time, after 3000 years of terracing and other upgrades, is hardly the dry and barren wasteland of the archaic dark age, the age of heroes. Why should we care what conduct the gods rewarded and punished in that place and in that time, if it was so weird and nearly unique? Well, we in America have an odd connection to it. When the philosophers of the 18th century Enlightenment concluded that monarchy was a blot on humanity that had to be erased, they went looking for any historical model of a successful society that had survived and thrived after regicide or rebellion. There weren't a lot. Sure, they learned some from the Iroquois Federation next door, but to the Enlightenment philosophers there was also proof that maybe even white people could survive, and thrive, and advance the arts and sciences without a central monarchy. You see only a few centuries before, the Italian Renaissance had finally united the surviving fragments of the Greek world that were in Islamic hands with the surviving fragments of the Greek world that were in Christian monastic libraries, and the expanding use of the printing press put those Classics in the hands of an ever-growing number of people. A fad of middle-class philosophy broke out, and for a couple of centuries all educated people were fascinated with ancient Greece. Not so very many of those middle class intellectuals went so far as to renounce Christianity for Hellenism; a tepid universalist-like Deism was as much rebellion against monotheism as all but a few of them could stomach. But it is not an accident that in this country, the (re-)birth place of democracy and freedom, that our public buildings and our banks all used to look so much like Greek temples, and our public statuary for over a hundred years so closely aped the style of Pheidias.

Nor do I think that it is a coincidence that at times when America has been the least Christian, and our way of life the most in conformance with the ancient Hellenic scriptures, that we have thrived and prospered; at times when America has been the most strictly puritan Christian in its attitudes and governance, our science and education has regressed, our cities grown poorer, and our enemies bolder. We did not learn democracy, accountability of rulers to the judiciary, trial by jury, a civilian militia, elevation of the middle class as the cultural ideal of society, or entrepreneural capitalism from Christianity; indeed, these values are all deeply antithetical to the Bible. But you'll notice, I hope, that they work. It is not Christ who will save us from our enemies and lead us back to prosperity, but the true Gods, who have smiled upon our country so many times in the past.

Next: True religion.
Brad @ Burning Man

Done?

On my way to bed, it occurred to me that just possibly (no, let's be fair, "very probably") I've far, far exceeded any interest that most of you had in the subject of just what it is I believe religiously and why I believe it. I say this because as I was getting ready for bed, it occurred to me the sheer number of subjects I haven't even touched on. Assuming that I talk about animal sacrifice, about Prometheus' deal with Zeus and its central role in the founding of free and democratic society tomorrow, I still won't have said anything about the Mysteries. I won't have said anything about Greek attitudes towards love, sex, and family life, and whether or not those attitudes are blessed by the gods, and whether or not we as Americans should care. I won't have tackled the thorny issues of Hellenic attitudes towards slavery. And I'll have only glossed over in passing how this world came to an end. Nor do I have the slightest idea how many other topics I'll think of before I finally admit that I'm done. And at the very least, I figure I owe y'all a bibliography, right? Well, maybe not.

Am I? Done, I mean? Have I exceeded this audience's patience for the subject, for now? Should I go back to dealing with news items, and politics, and books, and music, and interesting stuff seen on the internet? Or do you still want more on Hellenism and Hellenic reconstructionism now?

Has Brad written enough about ancient Greek religion for now?

Blessed gods, no, I can't get enough of this.
74(83.1%)
I'd like you to take one or two more posts to wrap up loose ends.
12(13.5%)
Yeah, it's time for you to write about something else for a while.
2(2.2%)
Thank god you asked, I thought you were never going to shut up. I was tired of the subject days ago.
1(1.1%)