Wednesday, October 04, 2017



Euripides, Orestes 418 (tr. David Kovacs):
We are slaves to the gods, whatever "the gods" are.

δουλεύομεν θεοῖς, ὅ τι ποτ' εἰσὶν οἱ θεοί.
Matthew Wright, Euripides: Orestes (London: Bloomsbury, 2008), pp. 65-66, with notes on p. 144:
Passages like this can be hard to interpret: what sort of attitude to the gods is being expressed? In older scholarship one often encounters the view that Euripides was an 'atheist'. This view — like many views about Euripides that still persist in some form or another — is partly derived from the inaccurate ancient biographies of the poet: the Lives record that Euripides was noted for his unorthodox theological views. In turn, the biographers were probably relying on the 'evidence' of comedy: Aristophanes often seems to have cracked jokes about the tragedian's supposed 'atheism' or impiety.27 But, leaving aside the unanswerable question of what Euripides 'really’ believed, his plays do not contain views which can be described as atheistic (a label which would be anachronistic, since it really reflects a Judaeo-Christian type of outlook).28

The plays always take the gods for granted — but that does not mean that they never express a sceptical or critical attitude towards them. It may be more helpful to regard Euripidean (and other) tragedy as questioning and exploratory in outlook — a spirit that well reflects the intellectual climate of its time and the nature of Greek religion in general.29 For the Greeks, to believe in and worship their gods did not mean that they expected to understand the gods; and they certainly did not expect that the gods would always treat them with love or kindness. Worshipping the gods in fifth-century Greece (or, for that matter, mythical Argos) certainly did not imply the unquestioning acceptance of any particular set of beliefs or doctrines, nor did it preclude criticism of the divine powers.

Orestes' phrase 'whatever gods are' (418), like similar phrases in Euripidean tragedy, has sometimes been seen as an expression of disbelief,30 but it can be interpreted more literally in its context as hopeless ignorance leading to frustration. Orestes does not really doubt that the gods exist, but he does not understand why they treat him as they do; and, in particular, he is confused and disappointed by Apollo's treatment of him.

27. For example, Aristophanes, Women at the Thesmophoria 450-1; Frogs 885-93, 936, etc.

28. Attempts to reconstruct the author's opinions and beliefs from his works alone are now usually seen as doomed to failure (how can we know what Euripides 'really' thought?). See Lefkowitz, '"Impiety" and "Atheism" in Euripides' for an excellent discussion of the scholarship on this issue.

29. Sourvinou-Inwood, Tragedy and Athenian Religion, provides a full and up-to-date discussion of this aspect of tragedy (which is only sketched here).

30. See Willink's commentary ad loc. (cf. Bacchae 894, Heracles 1263-4, Helen 1137). On 'seeming expressions of disbelief' in Euripides, see Stinton, 'Si Credere Dignum Est'.

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