Friday, May 20, 2011

Religion Friday: Greco-Roman

It’s hard to find the origins and specifics of the Greek religion because the gods who were worshiped and their stories would vary in each local area. There were twelve pantheon gods, the top of the tier who resided on Mount Olympus, as well and many local demi-gods and heroes. Different towns would worship or focus on different gods. One of the most well-known would be the city of Athens, named after its patron god, Athena, the female goddess of wisdom. The gods and goddesses of Greek culture had very human traits. They were prone to anger, jealousy, loneliness, lust, and pride. They were mostly concerned with their own affairs, not that of humans. Each had his/her specialty: god of wine, god of the sea, goddess of fertility, goddess of grain, etc. Though I’m of a faith that says God created us in His image, I think we tend to create God (or gods) in our image. It’s hard to wrap our little minds around God, so we put Him in a mold we understand, be it a male with a long white beard, or a group of gods that have very human family trees and family interactions. I think it’s alright to personify God in such a way in our attempts to understand Him, as long we understand that He is greater than some supernatural human; that image is only a step in our growth of learning and understanding of Him.

The Greeks believed that those who pleased the gods would be blessed. Also a god of a city-state would watch over and protect that community in particular. Animal sacrifices and smaller sacrifices at temples and shrines were common to please the gods. They believed in being blessed in this life, but they also had a concept of an afterlife. The Romans later adopted and renamed the Greek gods. Because the faith was rather flexible in allowing worship of many demi-gods, it was easy for the Romans to allow occupied territories worship in their traditional ways (providing they paid their taxes and included worship of the emperor into their religion).

When I was little, I had a cassette of Shari Lewis reading Greek myths. Why the creator of Lamb Chop was reading Greek myths, I never questioned. I just knew it was good bedtime listening. That, and four semesters of Latin through high school and college has made quite familiar with stories of the Greco-Roman tradition. Nonetheless, I never really considered the stories part of a religion. I don’t know when (probably spacing out in Latin II), but one day I realized that these weren’t just hokey stories about people sleeping around and turning into animals; they were the remnants of a dead religion. A religion deader than the language they were written in. I know it seems so obvious, but for me, the idea that a religion that once spread from northern England to the Persian Sea was now seen as a bunch of old, simple stories shook me.

Can a religion last forever? In short, no. In long, sometimes the faith just disappears as believers die out; sometimes it transforms into something unrecognizable from its origin. As cultures peak and wane, their concepts of God, faith, worship change with them. Christianity today does not resemble Christianity of 200 A.D. It’s now the establishment, not the radical. And Islam on one side and secularism on the other are trying to push it off its “king of the rock” position. I wouldn’t say that Christianity isn’t Christianity anymore (though I would say that about some of its fringe sects), but I don’t think that it can be assumed that something large will last forever. Empires fall. Others rise. It takes work to preserve what you believe must remain for all time for all history.

Since I can’t fit the specifics of Greco-Roman religion/rituals in a summery post, I’ll compensate by sharing one of my favorite Greek myths, the Greek creation story:

In the beginning there was an empty darkness called Chaos. Then out of the void arose Eros, the god of love. Eros created the sky Uranus and the Earth Gaia. Then Eros made them fall in love. Together they produced the three Cyclopes, three Hectaoncheires, and twelve Titans. Uranus hated the Hecatoncheires and pushed them into the hidden places of the earth, Gaea's womb. This angered Gaea and she plotted against Uranus. She convinced the youngest Titan, Cronus, to attack and castrate his father.

Cronus becomes the next ruler. He imprisons Cyclopes and the Hecatoncheires and marries his sister Rhea. He feared he too would be overthrown by his children, so swallowed his children when they were still infants. However, his wife Rhea hid their youngest child. She gave Cronus a rock wrapped in swaddling clothes, which he swallowed, thinking it was his son. This was Zeus, who when he reached adulthood, returned to Mount Olympus and fed Cronus a drink that caused him to vomit up the children he had swallowed. The children were so grateful that they made Zeus their leader and fought their father for control. After much fighting the children won, and they began to furnish Gaia with life and Uranus with stars.

There are much more details about the battles of the Titans and such, but as a kid, I just really liked the swallowing the rock part.

Next Friday: Hinduism

[The image is of the Athena in the Nashville Parthenon. Yep, Nashville has a pretty sweet Parthenon that's in better condition than its Greek counterpart.]

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