April 23, 2015

On Zeus

In an online community I’m part of, I made a remark about Asshole Internet Atheists(tm) who think they’re terribly clever to use “Nobody worships Zeus anymore” as a way of putting down Christians, and how I rather enjoy pointing out that no, in fact, some people still do, hey, look, here’s me. Someone asked me, quite politely, why I did that, since Zeus comes off badly in the myths, and was he somehow better in a worshiper-to-god relationship than that? (One of the things I like about this community is that people actually do generally respond very respectfully to faith they don’t understand.)

I managed to put it into words a bit better this time than I usually manage, so I thought I’d copy it over here.

I didn't say I liked him. I said there were circumstances under which it is appropriate for me to give him proper reverence. There aren't many, even. He's a patron of the state and men with authority and keepers of order and other things that have little to do with me. He's not a god I have a personal relationship with, and I would not care to. But if I'm giving honor to the whole dodecatheon, leaving him out is a bit like not inviting Maleficent to the christening, and giving him offerings and prayers does count as worship. So. One of the things about polytheism, particularly Hellenic polytheism, is that you don't necessarily have to think that the gods are paragons of virtue or good people or anything like that. I don't have to approve of most of what Zeus is depicted as doing in the myths to acknowledge that he has a function in the universe. Most of my gods are frankly terrifying in many ways. Zeus is a rapist. So is Apollon, and he has a place in my worship far more often. Dionysos kills people, and has inspired his worshipers to kill and to commit suicide. Artemis hunts and shoots down men who offend her. Athena is into war and maybe cursed a woman for being raped in her temple. Hermes is a thief and a swindler. Hekate is all around terrifying. Basically the only god I worship regularly who isn't awful by mortal standards is Hestia. Gods aren't mortals and the rules aren't the same for them. That doesn't mean that everything that they do is right -- rape is as wrong for gods as for humans -- but it means they can be awful and still very effectively serve their functions as gods. Even with mortals, we can acknowledge that a person has done both great good and great evil. We can say the Jefferson wrote great words and helped to shape some of the greatest ideals of the United States, and that he was also a slaveowner and a rapist. I can thank gods for the gifts that they give me and all mortals, and still acknowledge that they've done terrible things. The good and the bad exist side by side, they don't cancel each other out. And because they're gods, both of those things are heightened. The gods are part of the world. Everything in the world can both help and harm, and generally the greater potential they have to help, the greater potential they have to harm, too. They're like oxygen, like water, like fire. They can hurt, they can kill, but that doesn't mean I can completely deplore them or banish them from my life. I think that's about the best I can do explaining it.

The gods are what they are, and they do their jobs as gods, serve their functions, and if some of what they do is frankly awful, then it is, and it may be necessary for their function anyway, and we don’t have to like it, but we can still acknowledge that gods do stuff that benefits us, and the world, too. It’s not separable.