Jews and Christians believe in a Golden Age in the Garden of Paradise and in the Fall of our first parents, the wreck of humanity that passes on to generation after generation and which can only be erased through sacrifice. The ancient Greeks also believed in a Golden Age and a Fall. Their fall, however, was not the fall of men but of the gods, the rebellion by Zeus against his father Chronos. The Greeks, too, had their sacrifices, but far from being obedient offerings to a just God who teaches repentance through the sacrament, the Greek sacrifices were offered merely as attempts to placate – or even just temporarily distract – their petty immortal masters. In the mean time, what could good Greeks do other than to try to be better than their gods?
Old Father Time apparently ruled in wisdom, but Zeus pretty much ran the world as a breeding ground for young women to make sport with. And because Zeus was such a problem, his wife, Hera, was a problem. Hera held a specially dark spot in her heart for Heracles (aka Hercules), the son of one of her divine husband’s dalliances. Over the first week of January, I read five ancient plays about Heracles: three by Euripides and two by Sophocles. In each one of them, the hero wants to do good and be a friend to others but can only try to do so during his respites from Hera’s cruelty. During his life, he wrestles Death to win Alcestis back from the grave. After his death he appears to Philoctetes with words of wisdom that ultimately lead to success against the Trojans, and in Euripides’ Heraclidae, he leads Athens to victory against a Peloponnesian invasion.
In the best of the five tragedies, Heracles Mad, the hero returns from his last of his twelve labors (assigned to him by Hera’s lackey, Eurystheus) to find that Lycus, a usurper, wants to kill Heracles’ children because they have some claim to his shaky throne. (Yes, Zeus, usurpers are the bad guys in stories!) Does Heracles defeat Lycus and set his son on the throne? No, Hera drives him mad and makes him kill his own children. (Seriously, how did anyone ever call their service to this virago “worship”?) When Heracles snaps out of it and discovers his horrible deed, he is, needless to say (a phrase always used ironically), devastated. But then, enter Theseus, better than the gods, homo ex machina, to save the day. He tells Heracles that tragedy reveals true friendship by showing who stays with the sufferer through his deepest calamity (hence, no Greek god can ever be a true friend), and then, proving himself in this test of friendship, he offers to take the beleaguered hero back to Athens and settle him in honor.
Some people still try to be better than their gods. I once had a very nice wiccan student who talked religion with me from time to time. One day she explained to me that her goddess has a dark aspect, but that she – my student – tried in her successive lives to quell the dark side in her own soul. When I suggested to her that she was then trying to become better than her goddess, the quiet look of concern on her face showed me that he had never thought of it in that light before. When she told me later that our religions weren’t that different, I was able to point out to her that I could never have the goal of being better than my God. I hope she finds her Way.