Greek and Roman Myths
The gods we know best are the ones passed down to us in Greek and Roman stories. But what has made these deities so interesting for so long? The Greek god Dionysus invented wine, quite an impressive accomplishment to some people. But others were more impressed by the sobering, palpable presence of the gods in their everyday lives. They were not just the gods behind the forces of nature; they were the very forces themselves.
These gods lived full lives of intellect, temperament, and emotion. They exhibited vanity and jealousy; they engaged in love and war. While other cultures' gods were snakes or bulls, the Greek and Roman gods looked human and, much of the time, acted like humans. They married, had children, and battled among themselves. They had favorites among us mortals: people whom they met, spoke to, helped, or cursed. And many human women bore children by them. These offspring were demigods who often became heroes in their own right.
Are these gods and heroes fictional? That's the wrong question. Myth is a seductive, poetic enterprise by which we express our deepest wishes, as well as our most profound anxieties. In this chapter, we visit these gods and examine their influence on how we resolve moral issues today. The beauty of these stories can only be realized when the characters remain where they belong, neither in the world of truth nor the realm of fiction, but beyond the world of reason.
Prometheus is the god who created man, a claim he shares with dozens of other deities. But he also brought man the essential gift of fire, which is more than we can say for Yahweh, Allah, or any other Western divinity.
Prometheus, whose name means "to think before acting," was a god to both the ancient Greeks and Romans, and his history has grown under the pens of such writers as Hesiod, Apollodorus, and Ovid.
Prometheus was the son of the Titan Iapetus and a nymph, Clymene. Even though he was a Titan on his father's side, he sided with Zeus during the war in which the Olympic gods defeated the Titans. Following this, Zeus, the chief Olympian god, rewarded him with the task of creating humans. Prometheus did this from earth and water and then had the goddess Athena breathe life into them.
But Prometheus secretly held a grudge against Zeus and the other Olympians for destroying his race of Titans. And he always sided with humans against the gods.
When Zeus decreed that man must share with the gods each animal the humans sacrificed, Prometheus decided to trick Zeus. After a sacrifice to Mecone, Prometheus cut up the bull and hid the desirable parts under the hide and the undesirable bare bones under a layer of rich fat. Then he told Zeus to choose for all time which he wanted and which would go to the humans. Zeus, the glutton, chose the fat. When he realized that he had been tricked, he withheld fire from humans as a punishment. But Prometheus went up to Olympus and stole some burning nuggets from the sun. He brought them to earth hidden in a stalk of fennel and thus delivered fire to mankind. After man had fire, Prometheus taught them architecture, mathematics, medicine, and metallurgy. Again, Zeus became angry with Prometheus. By teaching men all of these skills, Prometheus's pets were approaching the status of the gods.
This time Zeus decided to punish Prometheus directly. He had his servants, Force and Violence, seize Prometheus, take him to the Caucasus Mountains, and chain him naked to a rock. There a giant eagle tore at his liver during the day; because Prometheus was immortal, his liver grew back during the night. This went on for many years until finally, in his infinite mercy, Zeus gave Prometheus a way out of his torment, but it required that an immortal volunteer had to die for Prometheus. Needless to say, volunteers did not come pouring in. In fact, no one took up the call for a long time. But eventually, Chiron the Centaur made the sacrifice for him and Zeus ended Prometheus's punishment.
Prometheus is the inspiration for all those who refuse to bow to authority, and we venerate him with a prominent statue in Rockefeller Plaza in New York City. We also revere him at his sacred temples, the Golden Arches, where we enjoy the desirable cuts of sacrificed animals that Prometheus secured for us.
Apollo and Dionysus—#23
These two gods of ancient Greece embody the opposite personality types of the Rational and the Free Spirit. We all are combinations of calm restraint and emotional abandon, which is what separates us from the stereotypes of myth, legends, and fairy tales. "Who you are" is reflected in which of these two influential gods dominates your personality.
The Apollonian side of life is order, reason, truth, and virtue—important aspects of life, but not the things that give you a rush. By contrast, Dionysus is the god of wine, revelry, risks, disorder, and freedom.
Apollo was one of the few Greek gods not renamed when brought into the Roman pantheon. He was known as the god of light, medicine, music, and poetry. As protector of the nine Muses, he was the guardian of all culture. As the god of theater, he inspired the playwrights Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus, whose works are still performed. Writers such as these produced new plays and poems for the annual festival of Dionysus. The theater that was dedicated to him in Athens still survives, though ticket sales are not what they used to be. Various groves were sacred to Dionysus, and presumably all the nightclubs and all the gin-joints as well. Dionysus, as god of the grape, has inspired the vintner's art from Dom Perignon to Thunderbird.