Prometheus

Prometheus was the subject of a story in Greek mythology similar, in some respects to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. Prometheus was a member of an older race of gods, the titans, who were the ancestors of the Olympian gods the Ancient Greeks worshipped. The leader of the titans was Cronus, who gained the position by overthrowing and castrating his father Ouranos, the Heavens, at the behest of his mother Gaia, the Earth. When Cronus learned that his children by his wife and sister Rhea would overthrow him in his turn, he decided to forestall the event by swallowing each child as it was born. These six children were the first generation of the Olympians: Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus. By the time Zeus, the youngest, was born, Rhea was tired of Cronus swallowing her children so she substituted a stone for Zeus and hid the real baby Zeus in Crete. When Zeus grew up, he forced Cronus to disgorge his siblings and there was war between the gods and the titans. Eventually the gods won and the titans were imprisoned in Tartarus.

Prometheus had fought on the side of the gods. Prometheus means”forethought” in Greek and Prometheus had the ability to see into the future. Thus, he knew the gods would be victorious and wanted to fight on the winning side. In fact in some versions of the story, Prometheus’s defection was the decisive factor that led to the victory of the gods. As a result of his decision, Prometheus was not cast into  Tartarus but allowed to remain free.

The good relations between Prometheus and Zeus did not last. When human beings were first created, Greek mythology is somewhat inconsistent over who created humanity, they lived little better than animals since they lacked the knowledge of fire. Prometheus took pity on the mortals and urged Zeus to share the knowledge of fire with them. Zeus refused, so Prometheus stole fire from Olympus and brought it to humanity along with the knowledge of many useful arts and crafts. Enraged by this act of rebellion, Zeus chained Prometheus to the Caucasus mountains where an eagle would tear out his liver and eat it every day. By night, the liver would regenerate only to be torn out again. Eventually Zeus relented and allowed Hercules to rescue Prometheus. Zeus punished the humans who accepted the gift of fire by creating the first woman, Pandora, and giving her the box of troubles that she couldn’t resist opening.

Prometheus, by Gustave Moreau, tortured on Mou...
Prometheus, by Gustave Moreau, tortured on Mount Caucasus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You may notice that the story of Prometheus is a sort of inversion of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. In both cases a being offers knowledge to humanity in defiance of a deity and as a result the being is punished and humanity is fallen into a world of troubles. The difference is that the serpent/Satan is generally seen as a rebel against a just God who wishes evil upon the human race, while Prometheus has been viewed as a benefactor to humanity unjustly punished by a tyrannous Zeus. As a result, Prometheus has come to be symbol of heroic struggle against unjust regimes or of a struggle of reason and science against religion and superstition. There is a publishing house called Prometheus Books which specializes in publications dealing with science, freethinking, secularism, and humanism.

I am not so sure Prometheus is really the hero of the story. It occurs to be that Zeus might have had good reason to withhold fire from humanity. Zeus, being a god, must have known that knowledge without wisdom is a dangerous combination and he must have foreseen the terrible uses humans would make of fire, especially in war..  He might have intended to allow humans to use fire as soon as they had become more civilized. It could well be that Prometheus was not really doing the human race a favor.

There is another story about Prometheus in which he is regarded as a benefactor to humanity, the Trick at Mecone. According to this myth, the gods and humans met at a place called Mecone to make arrangements for the sacrifices that humans would make to the gods. An ox was killed and its remains were divided into two piles. Zeus would choose which pile was to be for the gods’ use in the sacrifice, while humans would get the other pile. Prometheus told the humans to put all the good meat and fat in one pile covered by the disgusting stomach of the ox. In the other pile they put the bones covered with what appeared to be the best fat of the ox. Zeus naturally chose the pile that looked better, leaving the edible parts of the ox for human consumption. Zeus was not pleased with this deception and withdrew the use of fire from humanity to punish them.

Here again, Zeus  Prometheus is presented as the hero and Zeus the villain and again, I am not so sure. This story of the Trick at Mecone is considered to be an explanatory myth which presented the reason the ancient Greeks dedicated the inedible portions of the sacrificial animal to the gods while eating the edible parts. This seems to be the opposite of the Biblical commands that the Israelites only sacrifice the best of their herds and flocks to God at the Temple in Jerusalem.

Perhaps I am more aligned with the ethic of the Old Testament than Greek mythology, but it seems to me that the Trick at Mecone was rather contemptible. Since God, or the gods created the animals that were to be sacrificed, wouldn’t they deserve to have the best portions? Since the gods would have to be far wiser as well as more powerful than mere humans, shouldn’t their commands be followed? The difference was that while the Jews, and later the Christians, took it for granted that God is just, wise and good, and desires only what is best for us, the pagan Greeks did not. According to the poets the gods often acted in ways that were selfish and even cruel. Human beings existed for their use and it was best if the gods took no notice of you. It may have seemed only fair that humans would manage to cheat Zeus. Maybe. I kind of agree with Plato that the poets slandered the gods. Anyway, I still wouldn’t trust Prometheus.

That Old Time Religion

Would you like to go back to that old time religion? Do you find monotheism monotonous? Would you prefer to worship older and more interesting gods? Then maybe Hellenismos is the religion you have been looking for.

Hellenismos is a revival of the polytheistic religion of ancient Greece and Rome. Followers of this religion worship the old gods of Greek and Roman myth like Zeus, Apollo, Athena, and so on. As far as I can determine, these people are serious about the matter. They are not play acting or pretending like Civil War re-enactors or the Society for Creative Anachronism. It has been centuries since any of the rites of the Greco-Roman religion have been practiced, but these new pagans practice them as best they can be reconstructed from the evidence of literature and archeology. The only concession to modern times is that they do not sacrifice live animals though they do give meat and bones as votive offerings. There aren’t many followers of the Hellenismos, only about 2000,

Photograph of Supreme Council of Ethnikoi Hell...
Photograph of Supreme Council of Ethnikoi Hellenes (YSEE) ritual in Greece. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

mostly in Greece and the US. There are an estimated 100,000 people who have shown some interest in it.

The name Hellenismos is worth exploring. The ancient Greeks, as well as the followers of every other traditional ancient religion, did not have a name for their religion. Religion, in those days, was not something separate, but was an intimate part of culture and day to day life. There was no consistent theology or doctrine. There was not a separate class or hierarchy of priests or clergymen. Priesthoods were local and often political posts.  The people of ancient times would not have understood the concept of separation of church and state. Practicing the rites to gain the gods’ favor was an essential role of the state. You did not convert to the ancient Greek or Roman religion, unless you happened to adopt their culture.The closest thing to joining a church in ancient times might be being initiated into one of the mystery religions. Even then, the initiate still worshiped the same gods as everyone else.

The Greeks were aware that people in other countries worshiped other gods. If I understand Herodotus correctly, the Greeks seemed to assume that foreigners worshiped the same set of gods they did only with strange foreign names and ideas about their relationships with one another. In any event, people didn’t travel all that much and few Greeks had much opportunity or inclination to learn about the religious beliefs of people they called barbarians. This changed somewhat in the more cosmopolitan world of the Hellenistic Era and the Roman Empire. People and ideas moved back and forth throughout the ancient world and cults and sects spread far from their lands of origin. The culture became a little more individualistic than before and people could make conscious choices about their religious practices. A person could become a worshiper of Isis, or Mithras, or even of the God of the Jews. (In the century or so before Christ, Jewish monotheism was very attractive to some people). Naturally that person would still practice whatever local rites and customs were prevalent, except in the case of the convert or follower of Judaism. A little later on, a new option arose. One could become a follower of Christ, or a Christian.

Christianity grew fairly rapidly in the three centuries after the death of Christ, until Constantine became the first Christian Roman Emperor.  Most of this growth took place in the cities of the Roman Empire while people in rural districts tended to be more conservative in their beliefs and who clung to their idols. The growing Christian elite referred to these bitter clingers as “pagani” or country folk, or maybe even rednecks.

In 361 Julian, a grandson of Constantine, became Emperor. Although he had been raised a Christian, the deplorable behavior of the sons of Constantine as well as his studies in philosophy, convinced him to abandon Christianity in favor of neo-Platonism and the old religion. Julian realized that much of the success of the Christians was due to their organization and the way in which they took care of their members. He decided that if paganism was to survive, it would need to be reinvented. Julian wanted to create a new-old religion with a more consistent theology and a hierarchy of priests. He wanted the old temples to practice the same kind of charity as the Christians did and he wanted the priests to exhort the people to more moral behavior, as the Christian priests did in their sermons. He called this system “hellenismos” or the way of the Hellenes. (The Greek work for “Greek” is Hellene and the word for Greece is Hellas.)

Julian did not succeed. He was killed in 363 while fighting a war with the Persians. He successor was a Christian as was every Roman Emperor after him. By 395, the Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire and the gods of the old temples were banished.

I suppose, in their way, the efforts of the modern followers of the way of the Hellenes are just as quixotic as Julian’s efforts to turn the clock in his time. I can’t imagine all that many people taking the ancient myths very seriously. In fact, I am certain that the modern pagans do not take them literally but metaphorically. Even so, while the Greek gods could be grand and noble, they were also petty, vindictive and selfish. Even in ancient times, some Greeks were embarrassed by the many affairs of Zeus. None of the gods were consistently superior to humans in morals, and in most of the myths, the gods were nothing but trouble to the hapless mortals they met.  They don’t seem to be the sort of beings that are very worthy of worship. I like the stories in Greek mythology myself, though I have never been tempted to worship Zeus or Hermes.