Monday, November 30, 2015


The Existence and the Power of the Gods

Bruno Snell (1896-1986), The Discovery of the Mind: The Greek Origins of European Thought (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1960), pp. 24-25 (tr. T.G. Rosenmeyer):
Our notion of faith or belief always allows for the possibility of disbelief; this is true in the world of ghosts, but is especially valid on a higher religious plane. 'Faith', the credo, requires as its opposite a false belief, a heresy; it is tied to a dogma which people must either attack or defend with their very lives. All this was foreign to the Greeks; they looked upon their gods as so natural and self-evident that they could not even conceive of other nations acknowledging a different faith or other gods.

To the Christians who landed in America the gods of the the Indians were of course idols and devils; to the Jews the gods of their neighbours were enemies of Yahweh. But when Herodotus visited Egypt and encountered the native deities, it never occurred to him that he might not find Apollo, Dionysus and Artemis there too. Bupastis translated into Greek is none other than Artemis (2.137), Horus is called Apollo, and Osiris is Dionysus (2.144). Just as the Egyptian name of the king sounds different in Greek, as his insignia deviate from those of a Greek or a Persian king, as a ship or a street does not have one and the same name or appearance in Egypt and in Greece, so also the Egyptian gods are not identical with those of the Greeks, but they are easily 'translated' into the Greek tongue and into Greek ideology. Not every nation calls all the gods its own; Herodotus found some barbarian gods for whom he was unable to cite a Greek name; those gods were to be regarded as barbarian par excellence. The Greeks, then, did not think along the same lines as the Jews or the Christians or the Mohammedans who know but one true god, their own, a god who demands conversion of those who would not recognize him. The Greek attitude springs in part from the circumstance that, dispersed as they were over various lands, they worshipped their gods in many shapes and under many names. The Artemis of Ephesus, the goddess with a hundred breasts, scarcely resembles her namesake, the huntress of Sparta. What wonder that in Egypt she exists in yet another guise, and under another name? The gods of the Greeks are a necessary part of the world, and that is reason enough why they should not be linked exclusively with national boundaries or privileged groups. How could there be any gods but those whose existence is self-evident, inherent in nature itself? Who, for instance, would gainsay that Aphrodite exists? Everybody knows that she is as active among all other peoples as she is among the Greeks; even the animals are subject to her rule. It would be downright absurd to maintain that one does not 'believe' in Aphrodite, the goddess of love. It is possible to neglect her, to pay no respect to her, as was done by the huntsman Hippolytus, but Aphrodite is present, and active, none the less. The same is true of Athena and Ares. And could anyone deny that, when all is said and done, Zeus upholds the sacred order of the world? The existence and the power of the gods are no less certain than the reality of laughter and tears, the living pulse of nature around us, the plain fact of our doings whether they be sublime and solemn, or bold and hard, or bright and serene. Every human act betrays the vitality of the ultimate cause behind it.

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