Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

THE POPE has re-opened a theological debate, claiming that God is not an old man with a beard, nor the devil a chap with a forked tail. Greeks would have asked - how does he know? They had this question wrapped up long ago.

The 8th-century BC epic poet Homer was said to have 'invented' Greek gods. He did nothing of the sort - Greek gods were part of a common Near Eastern heritage - but he did make them human, so that they seemed like real people with real personalities, not like abstract ideas or concepts. These gods, then, loved and hated, rejoiced and suffered, raged and laughed; they had their favourite earthly heroes (e.g. Athene adored Odysseus); and the males at any rate maintained a high sexual strike-rate. They also adopted specific areas of interest, like Catholic saints. So Artemis was god of the hunt and of childbirth, Hera of marriage, Poseidon of natural forces, and so on.

This made them easy to envisage, and sculptors and potters got to work representing Zeus (sky-god) with his thunderbolt, Poseidon (sea-god) with his trident, Apollo (culture-god) with his lyre, and so on. But the point is that there were many other forms in which a god was portrayed and worshipped. The xoanon, for example, was a shapeless wooden image that was thought to have dropped out of the sky (Athene was represented by an olive-wood xoanon in the Erechtheum on the Acropolis). …

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