With the coming forward of Greece, mankind became the center of the universe, the most important thing in it… The Greeks made their gods in their own image. That had not entered the mind of man before.
One could never tell where Zeus’s thunderbolt would strike. Nevertheless, the whole divine company, with a very few and for the most part not important exceptions, were entrancingly beautiful with a human beauty, and nothing humanly beautiful is really terrifying. The early Greek mythologists transformed a world full of fear into a world full of beauty.
You could not drag down Zeus… Nevertheless he was not omnipotent or omniscient, either. He could be opposed and deceived… Sometimes, too, the mysterious power, Fate, is spoken of as stronger than he. Homer makes Hera ask him scornfully if he proposes to deliver from death a man Fate has doomed.
This strange god, the gay reveler, the cruel hunter, the lofty inspirer, was also the sufferer… Like Persephone Dionysus died with the coming of the cold. Unlike her, his death was terrible: he was torn to pieces, in some stories by the Titans, in other by Hera’s orders. He was always brought back to life; he died and rose again… He was more than the suffering god. He was the tragic god. There was none other.
The idea of the great adventure was delightful to Jason. He agreed, and let it be known everywhere that this would be a voyage indeed. The young men of Greece joyfully met the challenge. They came, all the best and noblest, to join the company… Hera was helping Jason, and it was she who kindled in each one the desire not to be left behind… but even at the price of death to drink with his comrades the peerless elixir of valor.
There is a story, too, that Medea restored Jason’s father to life and made him young again, and that she gave to Jason the secret of perpetual youth. All that she did of evil and of good was done for him alone, and in the end, all the reward she got was that he turned traitor to her.
Here Phaëthon lies who drove the Sun-god’s car,
Greatly he failed, but he had greatly dared.
He lived happily thus for a long time; then he made the gods angry. His eager ambition along with his great success led him to think “thoughts too great for man,” the thing of all others the gods objected to. He tried to ride Pegasus up to Olympus. He believed he could take his place there with the immortals. The horse was wiser. He would not try the flight, and he threw his rider. Thereafter Bellerophon, hated of the gods, wandered alone, devouring his own soul and avoiding the paths of men until he died.
The greatest hero of Greece was Hercules… He was what all Greece except Athens most admired. The Athenians were different from the other Greeks and their hero therefore was different. Theseus was, of course, bravest of the brave as all heroes are, but unlike other heroes he was as compassionate as he was brave and a man of great intellect as well as great bodily strength… But Hercules embodied what the rest of Greece most valued… Hercules was the strongest man on earth and he had the supreme self-confidence magnificent physical strength gives. He considered himself on an equality with the gods – and with some reason.
There is no other story about Hercules which shows so clearly his character as the Greeks saw it: his simplicity and blundering stupidity; his inability not to get roaring drunk in a house where someone was dead; his quick penitence and desire to make amends at no matter what cost; his perfect confidence that not even Death was his match.
The Goddess of Love and Beauty knew very well where the most beautiful woman on earth was to be found. She led the young shepherd, with never a thought of Oenone left forlorn, straight to Sparta, where Menelaus and Helen received him graciously as a guest. The ties between guest and host were strong. Each was bound to help and never harm the other. But Paris broke that sacred bond.
“If I must slay
The joy of my house, my daughter.
A father’s hands
Stained with dark streams flowing
From blood of a girl
Slaughtered before the altar.”
Nevertheless he yielded. His reputation with the Army was at stake, and his ambition to conquer Troy and exalt Greece.
“He dared the deed,
Slaying his child to help a war.”
Priam, the King, and his Queen, Hecuba, had many brave sons to lead the attack and to defend the walls, one above all, Hector, than whom no man anywhere was nobler or more brave, and only one a greater warrior, the champion of the Greeks, Achilles. Each knew that he would die before Troy was taken… Both heroes fought under the shadow of certain death.
Troy has perished, the great city.
Only the red flame now lives there.
The dust is rising, spreading out like a great wing of smoke,
And all is hidden.
We now are gone, one here, one there.
And Troy is gone forever.
Farewell, dear city.
Farewell, my country, where my children lived.
There below, the Greek ships wait.
Aeneas, we are given to understand, married Lavinia and founded the Roman race – who, Virgil said, “left to other nations such things as art and science, and ever remembered that they were destined to bring under their empire the peoples of earth, to impose the rule of submissive nonresistance, to spare the humbled and to crush the proud.”
Insolent words uttered in the arrogant consciousness of power were always heard in heaven and always punished. Apollo and Artemis glided swiftly to Thebes from Olympus, the archer god and the divine huntress, and shooting with deadly aim they struck down all of Niobe’s sons and daughters… she sank down motionless in stony grief, dumb as a stone and her heart like a stone within her. Only her tears flowed and could not stop. She was changed into a stone which forever, night and day, was wet with tears.
“Slay the two who slew.
Atone for death by death.
Shed blood for old blood shed.”
And Orestes knew that he must work out the curse of his house, exact vengeance and pay with his own ruin.
Apollo was the God of Truth. Whatever the priestess at Delphi said would happen infallibly came to pass. To attempt to act in such a way that the prophecy would be made void was as futile as to set oneself against the decrees of fate. Nevertheless, when the oracle warned Laius that he would die at the hands of his son he determined that this should not be. When the child was born he bound its feet together and had it exposed on a lonely mountain where it must soon die. He felt no more fear; he was sure that on this point he could foretell the future better than the god.
“You knew my edict?” Creon asked. “Yes,” Antigone replied. “And you transgressed the law?” “Your law, but not the law of Justice who dwells with the gods,” Antigone said. “The unwritten laws of heaven are not for today nor yesterday, but from all time.”…
As she was led away to death, she spoke to the bystanders: -
“… Behold me, what I suffer
Because I have upheld that which is high.”
He was a universal benefactor. And yet he too drew down on himself the anger of the gods and by the sin the gods never forgave. He thought “thoughts too great for man.” He was once given a large fee to raise one from the dead, and he did so… Zeus would not allow a mortal to have power over the dead and he struck Aesculapius with his thunderbolt and slew him.
Minerva did her best and the result was a marvel, but Arachne’s work, finished at the same moment, was in no way inferior. The goddess in a fury of anger beat the girl around the head with her shuttle. Arachne, disgraced and mortified and furiously angry, hanged herself. Then a little repentance entered Minerva’s heart… Arachne was changed into a spider, and her skill in weaving was left to her.
The gods know that a day will come when they will be destroyed. Sometime they will meet their enemies and go down beneath them to defeat and death… necessarily the same is true of humanity… The heroes and heroines of the early stories face disaster. They know that they cannot save themselves, not by any courage or resistance or great deed. Even so, they do not yield. They die resisting.
Although the Norse hero was doomed if he did not yield, he could choose between yielding or dying. The decision was in his own hands. Even more than that. A heroic death, like a martyr’s death, is not a defeat, but a triumph. The hero in one of the stories who laughs aloud while his foes cut his heart out of his living flesh shows himself superior to his conquerors.
Never shalt thou be stained by baseness.
Yet a day of doom shall come upon thee,
A day of wrath and a day of anguish.
But ever remember, ruler of men,
That fortune lies in the hero’s life.
And a nobler man shall never live
Beneath the sun than Sigurd.