Zeus with thunderbolt facing Achilles
Achilles with shield and spear facing Zeus

The Gods: intro

"...Come, therefore, I will send you to the Pharaoh, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt". The Greek gods may not quite have the numen of the God of the Hebrew bible, but they have at least one thing in common: they may speak to us, command us with great force. We had better obey because we know it is not our own voice, but the voice of a higher power.

ἦλθον ἐγὼ παύσουσα τὸ σὸν μένος, αἴ κε πίθηαι,
οὐρανόθεν: πρὸ δέ μ' ἧκε θεὰ λευκώλενος Ἥρη
ἄμφω ὁμῶς θυμῷ φιλέουσά τε κηδομένη τε:
I have come from heaven to stop your rage, if you will obey me.
The white-armed goddess Hera has sent me
because she loves and worries about you both.

It is not the Father of gods and men who is giving this message

So, let us go back to the beginning: how shall we live? No, first something even more fundamental: how do we live? In the simplest terms, we decide to do something because of its expected result:

  1. It makes us better or stronger
  2. We profit from it, it makes us richer
  3. We want the pleasure that we think it will give us
These correspond to three top-level forces that drive us:
  1. the drive to increase our status/power, to be number one.
  2. our cleverness and daring, i.e our know-how and know-when. This is the desire to win.
  3. our desire to have, or to be, something worthy of admiration, glory

In Platonic terms these are the Good, the True and the Beautiful (I shall abbreviate them as G, T and B). But Plato has objectified them, he pretends they can be made objective and absolute. The three forces that I am talking about here are subjective. Your good is not my good and probably your profit is my loss. It should be noted also that all of these three are desires, they make us want to act in a certain way. They have a telos, a target or purpose. Also it is clear that they can overlap. For instance, we may decide to invade a neighbouring country. That may be good for us, it may also be trueif we know how to do it (clearly G and T often want the same). But it is not always easy to defend that it is also beautiful. Or we may sail overseas and abduct the prettiest woman in the world. That is certainly a desire that we may have. But whether it is clever, or good for us, remains to be seen.

The G, T and B in ancient Greece each have a semantic range which is partly unlike the modern usage of these words. Here follows a short explanation:

  1. The Good:
    This is not a moral statement, it is a statement of quality. In our Christian culture, the Good has swallowed Justice and a person cannot be good if he or she is not also just and kind. Not so in ancient Greece where these concepts remain separate. What is good in a.Gr. is basically what is strong and impervious to change (note the conservative aristocratic bias in this). A good apple is one that does not rot. A good man is a man who does what he says and does not turn this way or that dependent on how the wind blows. Our fathers got to rule this land because they were the best people and therefore we, the sons, are the elite, the kaloskagathos. Goodness is thus linked to power.
    It is also linked to status. Status is a ranking according to goodness (aretē) so the striving for the good is also a striving to increase one's status and honour. The human character trait to want to do this is called andreia, translated as spiritedness. It is the aristocratic virtue par excellence.
  2. The True:
    This sounds much too absolute for the striving force that I wish to discuss. The True is what remained after purification and objectification by Plato and it is what the philosopher strives for. This is a result of our most human faculty and our greatest boast: we are cleverer than the beasts. It is also our dearest conviction that we are cleverer than our neighbours. All this is not always confirmed but who cares? Next time we will win. What we have here is a competitive force whose connection with 'the True' is our grasp of reality. For instance, we may decide to ambush an enemy, a clever trick if nothing else. If successful, we proved that we had a better knowledge of reality than he: we knew that he was there but he did not know that we were. Our view was 'more true'. A better word to call it is 'the successful'. It is the human faculty that is always active when we are awake. It is continually looking for gain, success, loot, victory, solutions to problems. In Greek it is connected to 'mētis', a hard-to-translate word which has about the same semantic range as 'cleverness'. This ranges from 'knowing the truth' to reason to rationality to cleverness to cunning to deceit. All of these have to do with a clearer view of the world, of reality. An ambush is a mētis but also the cleverness with which a woman weaves a tapestry. It is the art of survival, of know-how and know-when: it includes boldness and seizing your chance. It is not wisdom until you abstract the desire from it. T is a very partial, selfish, acquiring force but, from necessity, one which does not lose sight of reality.
  3. The Beautiful
    This is certainly not just the esthetically beautiful. In a.Gr., it is rather what is worthy of admiration and therefore deeply desirable to have or to be. A very beautiful woman is of course the easiest example (for anyone but Plato). Some say the most beautiful thing is an army or a fleet of ships; according to Sappho it is the one you love. All these you can have. There exists also a kind of beauty that you can be: e.g. the kind of beauty or behaviour that makes a person sexually attractive. Its Greek name is makhlosunē. For women this has (as expected) negative connotations (it is translated lewdness or wantonness in dictionaries), for men it is even denied that such a thing exists, but it is what Paris received from Aphrodite to make Helen fall in love with him. At least, according to Homer who clearly describes Paris in those terms as a women-magnet. But sexuality does not have to be involved in B. A true hero, one who voluntarily gave his life for the salvation of our city, is of a greater beauty still (and you can be B). The drive toward beauty is perhaps the greatest pulling force working on us, sometimes greater than the will to power or even the will to survive.

Gods and goddesses

There are two things that we may obey: rules and desires. I would suggest that female gods are "desire" gods, while male gods "rule". Neither Homer nor Hesiod ever hints at a difference like this but the picture fits. Gods like Zeus, Ares and Apollo in Homer impose a rule or duty on us. Goddesses like the three beauties Hera, Athena and Aphrodite represent desires. Athena in a way is both: a woman in a man's armour, an armed maiden. More on Athena below.

It is time to give the solution to the riddle that is implicit in the Paris Judgement and the Iliad: the Good is represented by the goddess Hera, the True by the goddess Athena and the Beautiful, naturally, by Aphrodite. Always when these goddesses appear in the Iliad, they stand for the human driving forces as described above. The gods are driving forces that give us capabilities, like being clever or ambitious. We know they come from outside because we do not always have them with us. We cannot decide "now I will be clever and successful" because before the event we do not know, we may still turn out to be stupid failures. We can only pray and try. They are what we must obey and trust in, they are our nature. Put another way: they are phenomena in between us and the ding-an-sich. We are seeing the world - if we are seeing it at all - through their eyes and they fill the world with purpose. It is naive to think there are large, invisible beings roaming the world-an-sich: that is just the metaphor. Put still another way: they are quintessentially human - this is why Homer can describe them comically the way he does. They are also more than human because these forces are always there, immortal, and they rule all of us. I do believe that they are universal across cultures. The concrete form they take will differ: we have different ideas about what is admirable or what gives us higher status. But for all, these desires come first. They are subjective and partial in both senses of the word: these gods are incomplete humans. No god or goddess knows about the domain of another one. E.g. the desire for beauty or the striving for status understand nothing of cleverness and vice versa. And they are partial in the sense that they look at the world from our very personal point of view.

If you are lucky, they may be partial to you, as Athena loves Odysseus. That means you will be clever and possibly that your cleverness will make you a winner - but there are other gods and they may not love you so much. If you are a Heracles, a virtual slave with no status, this is Hera hating you - you will be unable to improve your status no matter how highborn or clever you are. If Hera would love you, you would be king.

In terms of Plato or Aristotle: these are the 'movers' although in Homer, they are not themselves 'unmoved'. Homer speaks of us obeying them instead of them moving us. We obey them (or not) when we are making important decisions, we are not talking about trivial ones here. There are other gods that may move us, but these are the three most significant ones that we have to obey if we want to live a meaningful life. Except...


This is what we do. What about what we should do?

The real world is not determined by what we desire. There are rules even if these are not immediately clear. One thing we may be sure of: our actions determine our fate. True, the heroic mindset often denies this ("I will not die before my time has come") but the examples given in the Iliad (Patroclus, Hector, Achilles) confirm it: we are killed because of our own choices. Why did they die? The short answer is: they went too far. They wanted too much. Which brings us to one of the motto's of Delphi: "mēden agav", "not too much". The iconic image of this is Zeus with his scales, representing the balance there has to be between mine and yours.

In Il 12.433- there is a simile:
"[...] as straight as the scales of an honest working woman spinning wool, who sees to it that they be true, for she would earn some meagre wages for her children". We may guess why: too much and she will be accused of cheating by her patron, too little and she will earn nothing. There we have justice, in Homeric terms. To ensure that her fate will not become worse than it is, she obeys the rule of the balance no matter what her inner desires may be proposing.
So, here enters a male god. Not a desire, a rule. For there are two sorts of thing we may obey: desires and rules, in Greece: female and male (sorry girls). Zeus says: "you and I must share". One does not typically desire to do that, many of us would keep it all if we could. But we do know about the rule. The words for 'fate' in Greek mean share or portion, archetypically the size of the portion that we get (according to status) when we attend the communal feast-meal, or the share of the loot that a man receives from his king once they have, for instance, sacked Troy. The exact proportions of the division are open to negotiation but the ever valid top rule is "not too much". Zeus sees to that, as god of Justice and Fate. Enter the keywords "moderation" and "proportionality".

An example: Hesiod's story about Prometheus and Zeus and Pandora:
it sounds like a joke, a serious one. Prometheus creates two portions for sacrifice: a worthless one that looks beautiful, a good one which looks unappetizing. He offers them to Zeus...
Of course Zeus cannot choose the best part. Justice itself cannot knowingly pick the better part. Prometheus knows that, he is being clever but unjust by not making the portions equal, thus incurring the wrath of Zeus. So Zeus hides fire from mankind.

Fire, as brought to you by Prometheus, hidden in a fennel-stalk which is an obvious penis symbol:

thyrsos
This is a thyrsos, a fennel stalk often with a pine cone fixed to the top. It was carried by the maenads in Bacchic rituals. Mentioned by Homer Il 6.134

It is Desire - Eros - the ever hungry energy that consumes all in its drive to get more. It can be harnessed, but will it?
It won't, so Zeus says, justly: "I'll give you what you desire" and the gods create Pandora: Woman. The worthless one that looks beautiful, so says the old misogynist.
(In Hesiod's defense: this is not about women - women are just men with breasts - but about Woman, a mythical creature that only lives in men's minds. Helen, for instance, is a Woman.)


It must be emphasized, Zeus' justice is not an objective justice, it is a subjective one. Which of course is in accordance with reality. We all know how both sides in a conflict can be (and usually are) completely convinced of the justice of their own position and the wrongness of the opponent's one. Still, both are "obeying Zeus". So Zeus is a realistic but weak concept. Most of us would like an objective justice, enforced here and now by some supreme power. But the closest we come is law, which is not the same as justice. Zeus, however, is a necessary minimum. If we do not even choose to obey what we ourselves think is just, we are really doomed. Even more crucial: Zeus is the only god who acknowledges the existence of the other person. There are after all two sides to the balance: mine and yours. The three desiring goddesses above are like the Freudian Id: they know only themselves. That is the reason why they (we) should be ruled by Zeus. We could say that the telos of the goddesses is, that we might live well. The telos of Zeus: that we might live together. Zeus can boast of being the strongest because we can choose to obey him, we do not have to ruled by "pleasure and pain".
All this, for better or for worse. For make no mistake: Zeus is a friendly god only until his anger is raised. A wrathful Zeus is a scourge on earth, he will easily destroy a whole city or a whole army in the name of revenge and justice. Subjective justice of course, since Zeus is only human.

This raises a crucial Iliadic question. Does Justice really demand this? Looking at Achilles: is revenge our highest duty? I hear the chorus of "yes, yes". First he takes revenge on his own side (by not fighting), then on the enemy side (by slaughtering like a mad dog). Is it Zeus who makes him do all this (Achilles claims that it is), or is it some other god(s)? Do we always know which god, if any, we are obeying? Do we - to quote a second motto from Delphi - always know ourselves? Can we, to take a nearby example, distinguish our own righteous indignation from an attempt to wriggle out of the fate which we chose? These questions bear contemplating. If only we could be like Diomedes. He was taught by Athena to distinguish gods from men and recognize them, a most desirable ability during battle. Not that he would ever distinguish Zeus himself. The father of gods and men does not come down to earth, does not even speak directly to mortals. Like the God of the Hebrew bible, he comes no closer to earth than the top of a mountain. Zeus' predecessor Kronos had no such restrictions: he ruled as an all-powerful god on earth. "Zeus" is a relatively weak statement. He rules his wife and children with authority like a pater familias but he does not dictate. He lets them run free, more or less, and sometimes gives in to their wishes even if he does not agree with them. Kronos on the other hand swallowed all his children, except Zeus. This image tells us, he was all gods in one, all things to all men...except justice. Like a true absolute monarch on earth, he was the one, the only one, who decided what was Good, True or Beautiful. And, naturally, any of his acts would be all three. So, however much we take, we do it only because it is good for us, the question of 'too much' is irrelevant. Desirable, surely, but it also means that the person obeying Kronos in taking the decision is the only person on earth. "The Other" is not visible. For more on Kronos go here.