The Gods of Athens

Some years ago, at a seminar on Homer for mostly Greekless scholars, an eminent American conservative opined that, whatever merits there were in the civilization of ancient Greeks, no one could take their childish religion seriously.  Somewhat testily, I replied that a religion that had attracted the attention of such considerable scholars as Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (I’ll keep this short), A.N. Cook, Walter Otto, Martin Nilsson, Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones, J.P. Vernant, and Walter Burkert could hardly be unworthy of serious scholarly attention, and no one interested in literature could fail to take a deep interest in a religious mythology that had inspired the imagination of non-Greek poets from Vergil to Eliot.

For most nonclassicists, Greek polytheism presents a problem.  How could the people who “invented” our civilization have been so naive as to worship dozens of gods to whom they attributed so many unedifying and conflicting tales?  Perhaps the question should be put the other way around: How could we suppose that the religion that inspired Sophocles and formed the mind of Plato and Aristotle could be anything but profound?

Before approaching the subject, some of the ideological rubbish that obstructs our view should be cleared away.  Since at least Nietzsche, neopagans have argued that polytheism per se, which they claim defines the Greek mind, encouraged peaceful...

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