The Spectacular Violence of the Greek Gods: Hesiod, Homer, and Greek Theodic Tradition

The decline of cultural Christianity, along with intellectual Christianity, has brought with it a debased Atheism without consciousness, inspiration, or stories. It has also been met by a renewed and vigorous neo-“paganism.” The romantic mind of these new pagans, many associated with the so-called Alt-Right, present the portrait of a redeemed paganism that was—ironically—the product of Christianity. Anyone with a true familiar with the pagan classics would know that their gods were not these wondrous beings painted in naked glory by the likes of Catholic painters during the Baroque period and the height of the Counter Reformation.

Theogony: Sexual Violence and The Lust for Domination

The oldest account of the Greek gods comes from the pen of the poet Hesiod, who happens to my namesake alias. Theogony, a short but incredibly vivid and image-soaked poem, literally means “birth of the gods.” Or the genealogy of the gods. Because that is what the work does; Hesiod gives us an account of the origins of the gods and alludes to, or contains, even if just a half sentence or single sentence, many of the Greek classical myths.

There are two lines of gods presented in Theogony. One line self-propagated without sex. The other line, born from the sexual intercourse of Uranus and Gaia, produce the titans and, eventually, the Olympian deities. Needless to say, the line of gods born from sex—and often violent sex—engage in their own lust for domination throughout the poem leading to castration, filicide, and rebellion.

Uranus’ birth from Gaia’s fertile womb leads to the conjugal union of the two and the forced copulation of the primordial deities which will eventually produce the line of Titans and Olympians of mythological fame. The song of the muses which Hesiod opens with sets the pattern for future Greek poems; “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.” Homer’s opening may be more famous, but Hesiod’s is equally poetic and memorable:

Muses of Helicon, let us begin our song with them,
who hold the great and holy mountain of Helicon,
and around its violet-like spring and altar of exceedingly
strong Cronus, dance on dainty feet, and
who, after bathing their soft skin in the Permessos
or the spring of the Horse or holy Olmeios
on the peak of Helicon, form their dances, beautiful
dances that arouse desire, and they move erotically (Theog. 1-8).

That Hesiod opens with the muses of songs of praise, but transitions to celebrate erotic dance and sex, also sets the tone for the rest of the poem. The gods of whom the muses of Helicon sing their praises of, are gods of lust, rape, and patricide. Moreover, Hesiod’s poem is about the gods. Man factors not in his theogony. Homer’s two epics, by contrast, deal with men—though the gods are always and everywhere present and interfering with the affairs of men because men are, in the pagan outlook, mere puppets of the gods as Plato said.

The opening eighth of Hesiod’s poem sings the praises of Zeus; but it is slowly revealed that Zeus has usurped his throne in the heavens by “conquering his father Cronos by power” (73). Cronos, too, had conquered Uranus by power as the poem goes on to tell. In sum, the singing of the muses to the gods is a celebration of unadulterated ambition and power. Gods who meekly submit, remain in the place of their birth, and do not struggle to attain power for themselves, are gods unworthy of being gods! Hesiod’s poem reflects the Thrasymachian worldview of dog-eat-dog power dynamics. Above all, he celebrates it!

Rubens Fall of the Titans

Peter Paul Rubens, “The Fall of the Titans,” ca. 1638

Concerning the first line of gods that come into being, there are Chaos, Eros, Gaia, and Uranus, along with lesser primordial deities like Thalassa, the primordial goddess of the sea who goes unmentioned. Most of the lesser primordial deities are born from Gaia’s uncontrollable wetness which shoot out of her like fertilized eggs waiting to give birth to life; “She bore the large mountains, pleasant haunts of the goddess / Nymphs who dwell up along the woody mountains, / and he produced the unplowed / open waters raging / with swell, Pontos, without philotês” (129-132).

But it is the copulation between Gaia and Uranus that gives birth to some of the other gods like Tethys, the goddess of fresh water who is seductively beautiful and a prefiguration of white-foamed and naked Aphrodite who will burst forth from Thalassa’s womb in rapturous and energetic birth. From the “wide bosom” of Gaia and Uranus will also come the titans, and from them, the future Olympians of whom the muses—and Hesiod—sing their praises of.

The marital union of Gaia and Uranus is a cruel and vicious one at that. Uranus constantly penetrates into Gaia at will, then hides their children deep within her tummy which causes her ceaseless pain. Uranus is terrified of his children and what they might do to his kingship over the cosmos so thinks that by keeping them locked up in Gaia’s womb they will not pose a threat to him. However, “cunning” Gaia fashions for his children a sickle to overthrow their “reckless father.” Only the titan Cronus, who is the eventual father of Zeus, obeys.

Seizing the sickle fashioned by his mother, Gaia, Cronus ascends to the world and is hidden by his “monstrous” and “laughing” mother who just as much wants to kill Uranus as Cronus. The ascension of Cronus to the kingship of the gods is through an act of patricide. Something that was common in the ancient Greek and Roman world at the same time as the later human philosophers and historians praised the importance of filial piety and pater familias; you have in the account of the gods and the account of the philosophers two far different visions of the good life and what humans should honor. And just as Cronus will seize his throne by patricide, he will lose his throne by patricide.

Waiting for Uranus like a crouching tiger waiting to ambush its prey, Cronus attacks his father at his first opportune chance:

Great Uranus came, bringing the night,
and spread out around Gaia, desiring philotês,
and was extended. His son reached out from ambush
with his left hand, and in his right he held the sickle,
long and serrated and the genitals of his father
he quickly reaped and threw them behind his back
to be carried away. But they did not flee from his hand fruitlessly.
As many drops of blood spurted forth,
all of them Gaia received (176-184).

The blood which spurted forth onto Gaia’s fertile body gave birth to the giants and other monsters of antiquity which the demi-god heroes like Hercules and Bellerophon would slay. But even more graphic is the birth of Aphrodite; the first of the Olympian gods fathered by Cronus’ act of sexual violence and Uranus’ chopped off penis which fell through the aethereal air and into Thalassa’s open bosom—which is the sea—where it swirled about from which the frenzied movement of blood-drenched sperm  impregnated the primordial goddess of the deep sea:

As soon as Cronus lopped off the genitals
with the sickle, they fell from the mainland into the much-surging sea, so that the sea
carried them for a long time. Around them a white
foam from the immortal skin began to arise. In it, a maiden
was nurtured. First, she drew near holy Kythera,
and from there she arrived at Kypros surrounded by water.
From within, a majestic and beautiful goddess stepped, and
all around grass grew beneath her slender feet. Aphrodite
[foam-born goddess and fair-wreathed Kythereia]
gods and men call her because she was nurtured in foam (187-197).

The reality of the “birth of the gods” from Hesiod’s poem is one of complete bloodshed, of sexual violence, and divine rape.

Cruikshank, George, 1792-1878; Venus Rising from the Froth of the Sea

George Cruikshank, “Venus Rising from the Froth,” 1880; still idealized, but Cruikshank’s painting captures more of the dark and chaotic drama involved in Aphrodite/Venus bursting forth from the chaos of the sea and white foam entailed in her birth from the chopped off penis of Cronus which had fallen into Thalassa’s open and fertile body than most other idealized portraits.

Olympus may have subsequently been assumed by the titans, by their funny-business in birthing the Olympian gods comes full circle. What was seized in sexual violence and patricide will be lost in sexual violence and patricide. The Olympians, led by Zeus, convene a war council where “their spirit craved war” (665). War erupts, and violence falls over the whole earth:

They moved wretched battle,
all of them, females and males, on that day,
Tritan gods and those who were born from Cronos and those
whom Zeus from Erebos beneath the earth brought into light.
These were dreadful and strong, possessing excessive force.
A hundred arms shot forth from their shoulders,
for all of them alike, and each had fifty heads
grown out from their shoulders on sturdy limbs.
Then, they settled themselves against the Titans in the dire fray,
holding huge rocks in their sturdy hands.
From the other side, the Titans strengthened their ranks
eagerly, and both sides were revealing the works of forceful
hands, and the boundless sea resounded dreadfully, and
the earth screamed loudly, and wide Uranus groaned when
heaved, and from the foundations lofty Olympus shook
beneath the fury of the immortals. The heavy pounding
of their feet reached murky Tartaros, as did the shrill screams
of the terrible pursuit and powerful missiles.
Thus they hurled mournful darts at one another.
The sound of both reached starry Uranus
as they cried out. They clashed with a great war cry (666-686).

While the earth cried aloud in the tumultuous battle being raged, the victorious Olympians ascend to their thrones on Olympus in displacing the old gods. Hesiod’s poem is a triumph of the depraved imagination. It is the triumph of the lust for domination born by sexual violence and vengeance. Conceived in blood and hatred, that primordial original sin infects and taints all the Olympian deities who engage in their bloodlust, wanton sexual advances, and divine rapes and alluring of men and women to their sexual demise.

Saturn Devouring His Son, Rubens, 1636

Peter Paul Rubens, “Saturn Devouring His Son,” 1636. Before Zeus overthrew the Titans, Cronus, fearful of his children, ate them in an act of filicide appropriate for someone who had engaged in patricide. Fearing his sons might turn on him, he turned on them first before Zeus killed his father and seized his throne. Saturn is the Latin equivalent of Cronus.

From Pious Fatalism to Divine Decree

Hesiod’s account of the gods is remarkable for its brutal realism. Hesiod isn’t bothered with offering any defense of the immorality of the gods. He celebrates it. He, and the muses, sing the praises of the strong gods who overcame their lot at birth to ascend to power. Saint Augustine might have realized that these stories—in their Roman form—were about the sanction of sexual violence through authoritative power, “Have I not read in you of Jupiter at once both thunderer and adulterer? Of course the two activities cannot be combined, but he was so described as to give an example of real adultery defended by the authority of a fictitious thunderclap acting as a go-between” (Confessions, i.xvi.25),[1] but contemporary and succeeding generation of Greek poets and chroniclers tried to shelter and augment the open depravity of the gods into tales of pietistic fatalism (Homer) or the inescapable sanction of divine decree (Pseudo-Apollodorus).

Unless your knowledge of the Iliad is from the Ridley Scott epic Troy (2004), you have a very poor understanding of the rich mythology and theodicy in Homer’s epic. The “rage of Achilles” is not simply because of his exploits in war; it is because of his demi-god status. Indeed, the fact that Achilles has divine lineage running through his blood makes him a rage-filled killer like the rest of the Olympian gods. The Gods are everywhere in Homer’s epic. The human characters whom we may identify with, like Hector or Andromache, are mere playthings to the desires and jealous rivalries of the gods.

The origin of the Trojan War is through the Judgement of Paris, but there is more to it than that. Concerning the very genus of the war, the Olympians were celebrating the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. These gods who are obsessed with sex intend to have wanton sexual pleasure in the celebration of a sexual union. All but the god Eris is invited because Eris is the god of strife. There is a certain irony in Eris being denied an invitation. All the gods are mischievous and cause strife. So why should Eris be denied?

Eris is so outraged at his spurning that he tosses the “Apple of Discord” into the banquet where Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite quarrel with one another over it. Taking the apple to Zeus to decide who is the most beautiful and desirable of the goddesses, Zeus balks at this responsibility knowing his decision will cause enmity between him and the two goddesses not chosen. Denying this providential responsibility, he passes the decision unto the great Trojan womanizer Paris, who is hardly the dashing and handsome Orlando Bloom portrayed in the film.

Paris’ decision to choose Aphrodite was because Aphrodite promised him Helen of Troy. Paris got to satisfy his carnal lusts which sizzled within him like crackling oil in a frying pan. But with Athena and Hera spurned, they conspire against Aphrodite by taking their vengeance out on Paris.

The gods who ally with the Greeks against the Trojans did so not so much to crush the Trojans but to get revenge on Aphrodite and her cohorts. Athena and Hera are beautiful goddesses too, but Aphrodite is the most voluptuous and consuming of all the beautiful gods. Her beauty is the classic femme fatale. Her beauty is not only seductive, it is deadly. Those who fall into her bosom die to themselves as they are consumed by her.

Herbert Draper, the Pearls of Aphrodite, 1907

Herbert Draper, “The Pearls of Aphrodite,” 1907.

Homer’s Trojan War is not a mere contest between earthly powers. It is a divine rivalry moved by jealousy and the need for revenge. In killing Paris, destroying Troy, and depriving Aphrodite of her human judge and lover, Athena and Hera believe they will complete their revenge on Aphrodite.

The outcome of the Trojan War was the utter destruction of Troy—though Aeneas and a band of wayfaring pilgrims manage to sail their way to Carthage, Sicily, and finally to Livinian shores to found Rome. But the burning of Troy was horrendous even in Greek memory. While it is from the pen of the Roman poet Virgil that we get the most graphic of the descriptions of the fall of that great city, the violence unleashed in rage as Aphrodite and her party is defeated is all consuming. It made Sodom and Gomorrah look tame by comparison.

If Homer’s account of the gods was unsatisfactory as it relied on the virtues of a pious fatalism accepting, with humility and spilled loins and ripped out hearts, that humans were the puppets of the gods, Pseudo-Apollodorus’ chronicling of the Greek myths show us the continue advancement of the Greek stories and the human relationship with their violent gods. Pseudo-Apollodorus was a 1st century A.D. chronicler whose anthology of Greek stories is only remembered to us thanks to Christianity—and Christianity’s relationship to the Greek gods is something I will briefly touch on at the end of this discourse.

Moving from Hesiod’s open celebration of unrestrained violence, rape, and filicide, to Homer’s pious acceptance of the battles of the gods, Pseudo-Apollodorus’ account of the origins of the gods and Trojan War sees the final exhaustive movement of the theogony and theodicy given to us by those most venerable of Greek poets. Instead of concentrating on the bloodlust and sexual violence as in Hesiod, or the pious fatalism of Homer, Pseudo-Apollodorus’ anthologized stories of the Greek myths and gods indicate an impasse at the pious fatalism of Homer but the development of a rich but unconvincing theodicy akin to supralapsarian Calvinism.

Returning to the Judgement of Paris, Pseudo-Apollodorus’ anthology tells us that in the three naked goddesses displaying themselves in front of Paris’ eyes in all their glory each gave him a promise. Athena promised Paris that she would grant him victory in war. Hera promised Paris that she would grant him a universal kingdom stretching over all men. But Aphrodite’s promise of Helen to Paris was the only thing that could quench Paris’ need to ejaculate into a woman’s vagina or mouth. Paris chose Aphrodite because only she offered him an outlet for his sexual deviancy.

However, just prior to this judgement Pseudo-Apollodorus informs us that the choice of Aphrodite was necessary for Zeus to enact his divine will to depopulate the earth and destroy Troy. This indicates a wrestling with the immorality of the gods which Saint Augustine also reflected upon in Confessions and City of God when he engaged in his cultural criticism of the pagan deities. The Greeks, however, did not go the route that we know Saint Augustine went in seeing the stories for what they were: openly violent, sexual, and bloodthirsty tales of grand displays of male libido and female seduction which sanctioned the actions of the powerful and absolved them of their sins. Instead, the Greeks double-downed in their theogony and developed a blood-sanctioned theodicy since they couldn’t do away with their gods.

Rather than absolve the gods, however, this development makes them even more contemptible and condemnable. Athena and Hera are blatant liars to Paris. They cannot offer him the things they promised because it is not Zeus’ will. Aphrodite is to be chosen as the most beautiful to set in motion the unstoppable chain of events that will lead to a seven year war, the death of tens of thousands, the destruction of a city, and the chucking of the infant Astyanax from the walls of Troy as he falls down to the rocks below and cracks his head and insides to prevent him from seeking revenge for the death of Hector. This is made tragic given that Hector, the human embodiment of piety and filial warmth, offered up a prayer to the gods to watch over his son. It wasn’t to be.

Andromache, G. Rochegrosse, 1883

Georges Rochegrosse, “Andromache,” 1887.

Sanctioning the Rule of the Powerful

It is obvious to any reader of the Greek classics that the story of the Greek gods is highly anthropomorphized. Their gods are radically different from the metaphysical and ontological God of the philosophers and of Christianity. Their gods are humans with human emotions, sexual needs, and faults; the difference being their place of authority over us and their super-human strength which Saint Augustine noted was the cement which sanctioned the abuse of power and the free display of lusts.

We know why the gods had to subdue Aphrodite and Zeus’ will be satisfied: Because the Greeks had defeated the Trojans. In the same manner, as the story of the gods moved from Athens to Rome, we know why Aphrodite (Venus) turned out to be the victor over Hera (Juno) and Minerva (Athena): Rome had defeated Greece and become the power over the Mediterranean. In the same way this story of human power is seen in Aeneas causing the death of Dido and slaying Turnus. Dido, reflective of Carthage, is in fact killed by Aeneas for Dido thrusts his sword into her breasts as she collapses on a burning pyre while cursing eternal vengeance onto his children. It is a beautiful moment in which Virgil, with the benefit of hindsight, ‘foretells’ the defeat of Carthage and her burning at the hand of Rome. Likewise, Turnus, who has Greek lineage, is slayed and is therefore a foreshadowing of what the fate of Greece will be in her contest with Rome.

The Greek (and Roman) gods who are depicted in their naked beauty and charms by Catholic and later Romantic painters are not the gods of the Greek classics. Anyone who has read the classic poetry and tragedies of the Greek writers knows this. But debauched and uneducated neo-“pagans” of today are so far removed from the gods they romanticize it is hard not to find irony in their anti-Christianity since their view of the gods is the baptized, beautified, and Christianized spirits of deification. Looking at Titian’s Venus or Rubens’ Venus may strike us as something charming, remarkable, and indeed beautiful. But that’s because the Christian emphasis on subjectivity and beauty as a gateway to God took away the blood, castrated penises, and predatory sexual advances and scheming found in Hesiod, Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, and Pseudo-Apollodorus.

Those who wish to opine for a return to the old gods ought to know what the old gods were like. Not the docile and tamed versions of flowing hair, milky breasts, and perfect pigmentation bequeathed to posterity by Christianity when they painted tamer portraits of the Greek gods. The Greek classics are rich in many ways; but one thing that stands out is the centrality of bloodshed, sex, and violence. As Fustel de Coulanges showed in his grand study of antiquity, The Ancient City, the ancient city was indeed dark, hollow, and filled with blood in the streets. The Greek theodic tradition in poetry and tragedies affirms this in a spectacular imagery of divine violence.

 

[1] Confessions citation and notation is from Henry Chadwick’s translation.

7 thoughts on “The Spectacular Violence of the Greek Gods: Hesiod, Homer, and Greek Theodic Tradition

  1. So good! Reading your account makes me think of early man arising as cosncniiusness from the blind depths of his animal past. Semantic Reverberations particular to the human animal, echos of the brute animality of perhaps various “pre-“ or “meso-“ conscious times, when the first glimpses of intensional consciousness was peeking out of the instinctual world. A mediation between reason and before Reason proper.

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      • Schelling thought the pagan myths were an integral first step in the birth and growth of consciousness after which, matured consciousness would see the reality of Christianity as the supremely rational religion. Nietzsche and Freud were great readers of the Greek classics! The Germans, a bunch of Grecophiles really. I mean, you’re no doubt right that Freud took it from the Greeks. He even called it the Oedipus Complex straight out of Sophocles! I’m rather confident he was reading a lot more than just Sophocles.

        The benefits of a classical education I guess. I do love the classics; plus all the amazing paintings commissioned by the Catholic Church during the Counter Reformation. It’s quite ironic all things considered.

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      • Yes. Personally I do think that Christianity is about as far as anyone can go so far as a reasonable conception about reality. Reason only go so far and then if you continue into asking into reason eventually it shows itself is not reasonable. So then we get to Kierkegaard and stuff like that.

        But the Christian religion itself, or really any institution of religion, is really an attempt to retain what is reasonable. I think that is the irony inherent in Kierkegaard at least, that he shows.

        But yeah Freud was doing a lot of cocaine also so I’m sure that affected his thinking. Lol.

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    • Ha. Jung FTW! Incidentally, he is a moderate figure as of right now for my current M.A. thesis in philosophy – dealing with compensatory fantasy and mythological consciousness as it relates to “conservatism.”

      There is something absolutely wicked yet alluring about the Greek classics. As you obviously know – though I don’t necessarily hide my real name – the fact that I go by “Hesiod” should say something about the Greek legacy over me.

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  2. Pingback: Singing of Sodom: John Keats and the Resurrection of Sexuality | Discourses on Minerva

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