Zeus Filled the Streets, Markets, Seas, and the Heavens

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Council of the gods. Hermes and his mother Maia, left, Apollo playing his Kithara, and Dionysos and a maenad. Attic amphora, c. 500 BCE. Staatliche Antikensammlungen. Public Domain.

Prologue

I was born and brought up in a Greek village. Like the vast majority of Greeks, I was Christian. Not that I understood what Christianity was all about. I simply followed the rest. But my college education and work in the United States convinced me to abandon Christianity and return to the gods of my ancestors.

Piety for the gods

Ancient Greek religion was attractive and satisfying. Each Greek home had an altar for prayers and small offerings to one or more divinities. Prominent place in the private pantheon of the Greeks one could find Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, Zeus Ktesios, Zeus the protector of the house and property, and Agathos Daimon, the good god or divine power. Hesiod, epic poet of the eighth century BCE, advised his fellow Greeks to pray to the gods and offer them, each according to his means, pure and unblemished sacrifices, burning animal thighs for them. And at other times, he said, preferably at sunrise and at bedtime, Greeks ought to seek the favor of the gods with libations of wine and the burnings of incense so that “you don’t have to sell your land, but buy more land from others.”[1] Hesiod also says that the peasant needs to pray when he starts plowing and to pray even more to Zeus of the Earth and holy Demeter so that the goddess of agriculture would ripen his grain to fullness.[2] And Plato reported that Greek children would see their parents at the rising and setting of the Sun, and at moon, prostrate themselves with devotion to the gods.[3] Yet Plato said that we know nothing about the gods.[4]

 

The gods were invented by the Greeks. They made them mighty, immortal, and handsome, with all the virtues and weaknesses they had. Moreover, the gods were forces in the natural world: wind, rain, light, fertility, and seasons. Gods took a keen interest in the welfare of humans, especially those who expressed piety (εὐσέβεια) to them. Public and private sacrifices to the gods made piety possible.

Zeus

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Zeus, bronze statue dated to approximately 140 BCE. The statue was found in the sea near the island of Euboea. National Archaeological Museum, Athens. Photo: George E. Koronaios. Wikipedia Commons.

Zeus, father of the gods, for example, was the dark cloud, the god of thunder and lightning, the cloud gatherer, and the bringer of rain. But Zeus was also the protector of the household and of visiting foreigners. Aratos, the third century BCE poet and astronomer, praised Zeus in his astronomical poem, Phenomena. He started his poem with a paean to Zeus: the god that filled the streets and markets, the seas, and heavens. Zeus was the immortal father of the gods whom the Greeks considered their father: he gave them life and helped them to earn a livelihood. Aratos says Zeus put stars and constellations in heaven as sure signs for the seasons, guiding men to the best time for the cultivation of the land and for sowing all kinds of plants and crops and assuring an unfailing harvest and agrarian prosperity. “Hail, O father,” says Aratos to Zeus, “great god, mighty blessing to all human beings.”[5]

Zeus, however, favored the Trojans over the Greeks in the Trojan War. The Olympics and some other Panhellenic athletic games took place to honor him. His sister Demeter was the goddess of wheat and agriculture. His son Dionysos was the god of the vineyard, wine, rural culture, and theater and tragedy. Zeus’ other son, Apollo, was the god of prophesy, light, and music. Apollo’s son, Aristaios, protected honeybees, cheesemaking, shepherding, and olive oil making. In other words, Aristaios was god of ecology and rural life. Pan, another rural god, protected flocks of sheep, goat, and cattle. Zeus’ daughter, Athena, came out of his head fully armed in the island of Rhodes. She was the goddess of wisdom, intelligence, war, philosophy and freedom. The Athenians built the Parthenon in her honor.

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Athena, patron of freedom and democracy, in front of the Parliament in Vienna, Austria. Wikipedia.

These gods filled the pages of the epics of Homer and Hesiod. In fact, Hesiod wrote Theogony to explain how the gods came into being. The poetry of the great fifth century BCE poets, Aeschylos, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, is also populated by the gods.

Village icons

Reading Homer and the tragic and comic poets inspired me to move closer to eusebeia for the gods of the Hellenes, my ancestors. When still in elementary school, I remember telling my mother that looking at the icons of the village church made me anxious to discover my real identity. “These icons,” I was telling my mother, “represent Hebrews, not Greeks.”

That agony to discover the story behind the icons led me to my wholesale rejection of Christianity. After all, even as a child I knew I was Greek. So, why would the icons of the village church be mostly of non-Greeks? What did these foreigners have to do with us? Didn’t the Greeks have their own religion?

These questions kept me alert on anything around Hellenism. My historical studies opened the doors to the truth: that the loss of Greek freedom to the Romans eventually brought into Greece Christianity. The Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity a state religion in the fourth century. One need read a few pages of the Theodosian Code (16.10.1-25) to feel the chill of the ethnocidal policies of the Roman state and church against the Hellenes in the fourth and fifth centuries. The Christian Roman emperors, in conspiracy with their Christian deputies, made the Greeks and their culture monstrous crimes. Christianity brought the Olympics to an end in 393; the Christian bishop and his monks burned the Alexandrian Library in late fourth century, and, in 415, they butchered Hypatia, a teacher of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy in Alexandria. In 529, Emperor Justinian shut down the Platonic Academy that was the greatest university of Greece for about 900 years.

I wrote a book in which I documented the crimes of the Christians against the Greeks.[6] Christianity, daughter of Judaism, is responsible for the first genocide in European history — the genocide against the children of Homer and Achilles: Hellenes, Achaians, Dorians, Argives, or Danaans. Christianity rose and triumphed on the ruins of Hellenism. In fact the Christians built their churches on the foundations of the Greek temples they demolished. The icons of the village church covered up this tragedy.

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The temple of Athena Nike on the Acropolis, top, and, a short distance below the Acropolis, a Christian church. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos

Billionaire oligarchy in America

After earning a Ph.D. in modern Greek, Russian, and southeastern European history at the University of Wisconsin and doing postdoctoral studies in the history of science at Harvard, I started working on Capital Hill and the US Environmental Protection Agency. This experience lasted for twenty-seven years. It taught me a lesson that America was on the wrong tracks of ceaseless wars and the ruthless capitalism of billionaires. On February 16, 2022, Senator Bernie Sanders bemoaned the plight of the American people. Two billionaires, he said, own as much wealth as 42 percent of the American population. The 1 percent of the richest Americans own the equivalent of the wealth of 92 percent of the people of the United States.

I found those evolving conditions unacceptable. I witnessed the government doing the bidding of the 1 percent. I concluded that Americans and Europeans wasted their Hellenic inheritance in science and civilization. They became oligarchies with the billionaires in charge. Democracy is barely alive.

The American historian of technology, David F. Noble, says that America’s technological culture was put together by Christian inspiration with the result it has become a “hegemonic system of blind belief,” against which we must resist — “a struggle not for salvation but for survival.”[7] Noble also argues convincingly that not merely Americans but people of industrial societies in general are incapable of thinking or acting rationally about technology.[8] He is right. I also wrote four books, Fear in the Countryside in 1976; Harvest of Devastation in 1994; This Land is Their Land in 2006; and Poison Spring in 2014 in which I denounced this technological system. My books expose and condemn, in particular, the monster-forming, deleterious ecological and social effects of factory farming in the United States — both a symbol and a pillar of America’s technology project. In contrast to this bleak treatment of the land, the growing of food in Hellenic culture and all traditional societies had been nearly a divine responsibility.

Oedipus in our times

Our age, the third decade of the twenty-first century, is a time that not merely Greeks but countless other people and cultures are beginning to realize (like Oedipus) that they did murder their fathers and married their mothers. How else can we interpret the careless poisoning of the entire world with petrochemicals, especially pesticides? The burning of coal, natural gas, and petroleum to the point that the temperature of the planet is becoming hazardous to civilization, humanity and the life of the planet? Some countries even possess nuclear weapons, which threaten the annihilation of Mother Earth.

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US Fifth National Climate Assessment, November 14, 2023.

Traditional culture

It is necessary to rethink the madness of “modern” development and pay attention to Aeschylos, Euripides and Sophocles pleading for the preservation and respect of Greek traditional culture, a source of inspiration and courage that comes directly from the gods, time-tested for now and forever. That’s why the gods have been at the heart of Greek culture. They were part of the Cosmos, a perfectly ordered system, governed by causal laws that Greek natural philosophers could explain by study and observation of nature and the universe itself, a method and way of life that led the Greeks straight to the invention of science and philosophy.

Greek history

It’s thinking like a mountain, river, ecosystem, culture, civilization. And in my case, it’s thinking like the Minoans, the Mycenaeans, the Ionians, the Dorians, the Argonauts, Homer, Hesiod and thinkers like Thales, Herakleitos, Herodotos, Aeschylos, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Thucydides, Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle, Apollonios Rhodios, Alexander the Great, Aristarchos of Samos, Euclid, Ktesibios, Archimedes, Apollonios of Perga, Hipparchos, Ptolemaios, Polybios, Plutarch, Galen, Plotinus, Emperor Julian, Heliodoros, Michael Psellos, Anna Komnina, Archbishop Eustathios of Thessalonike, Ioannes Tzetzes, George Gemistos Plethon, Adamantios Koraes, Regas Pheraios, Ioannes Makrigiannes, Ioannes Kapodistrias, Dionysios Solomos, Andreas Kalvos, Andreas Laskaratos, Kostis Palamas, Constantine Kavafis, Aggelos Sikelianos, Nikos Kazantzakis, George Seferis, and Odysseas Elytis.

Greek history includes the excitement and drama of thousands of years of original creation and struggle for social and political wellbeing and freedom. Greek history becomes a theater on a cosmic scale. For modern Greeks in particular, it may have cathartic effects in cleansing and decolonizing their minds from their Christian fables, which keep them in ambivalence about their own culture — and away from their gods. That liberating possibility of bringing the gods back into Greek culture and making good of the promise of Aeschylos that it is better to die on your feet than live on your knees, and the pleasure of the journey itself.

I am writing Greek history on the basis of what Greeks said about themselves, nature, and the world. This is Greek history with the Greeks on stage, not Greek history without Greeks, not the Christian and conventional views of either burying the Greeks or of using Greek culture for narrow and selfish interests that deny even the existence of the Greek people for most of their long history.

Making our world

Medieval Greek scholars sparked the Renaissance. Before the Turks captured Constantinople in 1453, they left Greece carrying with them ancient Greek works on science and civilization. They took those treasures to Padua, Florence, Rome and Venice where they translated them into Latin. The rediscovery in Europe of these ancient Greek texts changed Europe and the world.

The excavations of Troy, Mycenae, Knossos, Thera, Olympia, Delphi and Macedonia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the twenty-first century discoveries in Bronze Age Pylos, Iklaina, and the tiny Cycladic islands of Keros and Daskalio made a difference. The resplendent treasures of Greek culture that came to light from those ancient sites, changed the Europeans’ sporadic Christian bias of things Greek. A more tolerant and, in a few cases, affectionate evaluation of Greek culture entered the European and American imagination — a tradition that is lasting to some degree to this day.

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Griffin Warrior as if from the pages of the Iliad of Homer. However, the miniature drawing of this warrior on a thumb-size seal stone dates to 1500-1450 BCE. The precious engraved gem was found near the Palace of Nestor in Pylos, Peloponnesos. Courtesy of the Palace of Nestor Excavations, Department of Classics, University of Cincinnati.

The decipherment of the syllabic script (Linear B) in 1956, and the evidence the syllabic script on numerous tablets from Crete and mainland Greece dated from the Mycenaean age was Greek, was another great victory of Hellenism. But for some scholars, the Greeks reached the pinnacle of greatness — their philosophy, literature, poetry, science, art, theater, and architecture were outstanding models for mimesis — and the Greeks themselves were made worthy founders of Western culture. Jacob Burckhardt, the famous nineteenth century Swiss cultural historian, said the Europeans see with the eyes of the Greeks and to abandon them would be to accept their decline.[9]

Yet classical scholars made a sharp distinction between the Golden Age of Greece — usually the fifth and fourth centuries BCE — and the Greeks who became subjects of both Rome and Christianity. The first or “ancient” Greeks were the paragons of wisdom, the people who created “the miracle that was Greece,” and the later or Christian or “Byzantine” or modern Greeks don’t exist at all, or they were decadent and not worthy of the ancient Greeks.

Of course, this is a biased minority view trivializing a complex history and culture and people who indeed went through a holocaust, with the survivors still asking themselves whether or not they are alive. And the shock of the millennial mistreatment is such that the surviving Greeks of the twenty-first century often fail to think of these issues. They say they are Greeks. What else could they be? Yes, they did call themselves Romans for centuries. But they had no choice if they valued their lives. They know, however, they are Greek and not Roman. Yet, in their churches, they are surrounded by huge, glittering icons of Jewish prophets, Christian saints, and the ever present terrible figure of the threatening emperor of all — Pantocrator — Christ, looking down at the Christian Greeks reminding them every minute they are not Greek!

Epilogue: Return to Homer

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Homer, painting by Evi Sarantea.

What is the alternative to Christianity? For me the answer has been simple — return to Homer, return to the divine culture of my ancestors. This means opening the hitherto closed doors of the spectacular and painful and tragic and healing power of Greek history and culture to the Greek people themselves and their Philhellene friends all over the world.

Greece / Hellas created a prodigious amount of originality in her culture.

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The Parthenon: Doric temple built by Athens, 447 – 432 BCE, to honor Athena Parthenos, daughter of Zeus, and to restore the temple that invading Persians destroyed. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos

Greek democracy, poetry, the dramatic theater, and philosophy, for example, have never been surpassed. Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Herodotos, Thucydides, Plato and Aristotle have never been bettered and they are probably unlikely to ever find an equal.

In addition, in the second century BCE, in Rhodes, astronomer Hipparchos supervised the creation of an astronomical computer of genius known as the Antikythera Mechanism. This metal toothed geared device united the heavens and Greek society. It predicted the Panhellenic athletic celebrations and the eclipses of the Sun and the Moon, both gods for the Greeks. In ancient Greece, the Antikythera Mechanism was probably known as Meteoroskopeion, that is, an instrument for the observation of the stars. This computer also mapped the heavens, giving the position of the planets and major stars and constellations. Its technology was so advanced it reappeared in Europe in the eighteenth century. It was 2,000 years ahead of the second century BCE.

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Painting of the Antikythera computer by Dionysios Kriaris, a mathematician in Athens. The painting shows both the front Cosmos, lower left, and the back spirals of the 19-year Meton calendar and the 18-year Saros eclipse predictive dial.

Hellas / Greece is not dead. She is alive and it’s only a matter of time before she returns to her original purpose — which has always been to create eudaimonia, not a utopia but a human heaven on Earth, an almost perfect, man-sized, democratic society of handsome and good human beings in intimate relationship with both nature and their beautiful gods and goddesses.

NOTES

1. Hesio, Works and Days 336-342.

2. Hesiod, Works and Days 465-467.

3. Plato, Laws 10.887e.

4. Plato, Kratylos 400d-401a.

5. Aratos, Phainomena 1-15, tr. G. R. Mair (Loeb, 1921, reprint 2006). Tr. mine.

6. Evaggelos Vallianatos, The Passion of the Greeks: Christianity and the Rape of the Hellenes (Harwich Port, Cape Cod, MA: Cloak and Rose Press, 2006).

7. David F. Noble, Progress Without People: New Technology, Unemployment, and the Message of Resistance (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1995), p. 142.

8. David F. Noble, The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), p. 6.

9. Jacob Burckhardt, The Greeks and Greek Civilization, translated from the German by Sheila Stern and edited by Oswyn Murray (New York: St. Martin Press, 1998), p. 12.

Evaggelos Vallianatos, Ph.D., studied history and biology at the University of Illinois; earned his Ph.D. in Greek and European history at the University of Wisconsin; did postdoctoral studies in the history of science at Harvard. He worked on Capitol Hill and the US EPA; taught at several universities and authored several books, including The Antikythera Mechanism: The Story Behind the Genius of the Greek Computer and its Demise.