The faith of an ancient pagan
The faith of an ancient pagan.
If you are a 21st Century believer, the god you believe in is probably the monotheistic god of the Judeo Christian Islamic tradition. He is a God of love, and compassion. If I were to ask you about the gods of the ancient Greeks, you would laugh. But to understand the dilemma of faith in the 21st Century, it is important to understand the faith of a Homeric Greek.
First, the gods were not above creation. They were the very powers of the earth and sky. They would give life and take it away again with no thought for mere mortals. The idea of a god that “cares” for humanity was still a long way off. The human struggle was one that took place alongside the adventures of the gods as they fought out their immortal dramas as humans fought their mortal battles and died.
To understand the faith of a Homeric Greek, you must erase 2000 years of human knowledge including science, philosophy, technology, etc. In the 8th Century BC when the Homeric myths were first put into writing, humanity had just emerged from 150,000 years of human pre-history. The forces of nature were not yet subdued. They determined your fate. They were real.
If you were to walk up to a Greek sailor who had just survived a ship wreck and ask him if he believed in Poseidon, it would be the same as if you asked if he believed in the ocean. Poseidon and the ocean were the same thing. He would look at you like you were an idiot.
The storms of Zeus could nourish or destroy; the sexual passion of Aphrodite could give you sons and daughters or tear your life apart. Demeter’s search for Persephone was the seasons. You had to honor these gods, respect their power and give them sacrifice or else. This wasn’t belief; it was the world.
The Greek sailor who watched the storm destroy his ship would “see” the breath of Poseidon in the winds. The farmer who watched the thunder storm destroy his crops would see the angry Zeus. The celebrant in the Elysian Mysteries was participating in the seasons. This was not belief. It was experience..
When the philosophers of 5th Century Athens questioned the existence of the “gods,” they weren’t questioning the existence of the powers. They were questioning if personification was the best way to understand them. But out of this ancient struggle emerged the very ancient human values of valor, honor, courage, compassion and wisdom: qualities the ancient gods did not have to possess because they didn’t have to die.
So out of our own death emerged the qualities that made the Homeric gods fade. We needed a bigger god: a god of love and compassion. Belief and faith emerged. The key to faith in love and compassion is to experience love and compassion. Without faith, the storm wins.