While it’s hardly surprising that gods and divine activity are a significant theme in Gates of Fire, Pressfield’s treatment of the human/divine relationship is far from simplistic. The gods are interested in human lives—even seemingly insignificant human lives—yet their intentions for those lives are not always clear from a human perspective. Through a range of personal and collective encounters between Greeks and their gods, Pressfield suggests that religious faith is a complex matter, at times motivating human beings to unexpected heights, sometimes reflecting their blind prejudices, and always reflecting the inscrutability of the divine.
The gods often intervene in the lives of ordinary people, even outcasts. When Xeo, maimed by a farmer who caught him stealing, wanders off in a snowstorm to die, he has a vision of Apollo, encouraging Xeo that he still has a purpose and should become an archer. “In a flash that was neither thunderbolt nor revelation but the plainest, least adorned apprehension in the world, I understood all that his words and presence implied.” This “apprehension” saves Xeo from an untimely death and sets him on the course that will determine the rest of his life.
Even though Rooster, the helot for whom Xeo works as a field hand, mocks Xeo’s piety (did he think the great god Apollo “would piss away his valuable time swooping down to chat in the snow” with a cityless kid like him?), he at last finds reassurance from the lady Arete, his mentor Dienekes’s wife. When he summons the courage to ask Arete whether a god would “condescend to speak to a boy without city or station, a penniless child who […] did not even know the proper words of prayer,” Arete assures him that he indeed saw a vision. She tells him to visit her again, because she wants to get to know this boy “who has sat and chatted with the Son of Heaven.” Xeo, weeping at Arete’s motherly reassurance, draws renewed courage from this exchange, committing himself to Apollo’s service through the rest of the story.
However, even if they can be trusted to take a guiding hand in human affairs, the leading of the gods is not always transparent to humans. The gods’ actions are complicated and hard for mortals to understand. Arete tells Xeo, “The gods make us love whom we will not […] and disrequite whom we will. They slay those who should live and spare those who deserve to die. They give with one hand and take with the other, answerable only to their own unknowable laws […] I have saved the life of this boy, my brother’s bastard’s son, and lost my husband’s in the process.” Arete felt compelled to intervene in the near execution of her nephew, Rooster, revealing that Rooster’s son was actually her own husband, Dienekes’, illegitimate son. Because of her intervention, not only are Rooster and his son spared, but Dienekes can now be assigned to the suicide mission at Thermopylae (only warriors with male offspring were selected), which will almost certainly leave Arete a widow. This is an example of how the gods “give with one hand and take with the other,” and of how mercy is entwined with the apparent hardness of fate in the gods’ doings.
When people take the apparent actions of the gods at face value, it can lead to misinterpretation and disaster. Near the end of the battle at Thermopylae, a monstrous lightning strike and a grisly avalanche of enemy corpses persuade the Spartan army that divine omens are on their side: “Yet such was the exaltation produced by that final prodigy that the allies would neither listen nor pay heed [to warnings of an imminent breach by the Persian army]. Men came forward in assembly, skeptics and agnostics, those who acknowledged their doubt and even disdain of the gods; these same men now swore mighty oaths and declared that this bolt of heaven and the unearthly bellow which had accompanied it had been none other than the war cry of Zeus himself.” Xeo calls this a “katalepsis,” or madness, that blinds people to reality. Clearly, faith in the gods and the use of reason are not meant to be mutually exclusive.
A Persian noble who comes to warn the Spartans points out “that if the hand of the gods was at all present in this day’s events, it was not their benevolence seeking to preserve the Hellenic defenders but their perverse and unknowable will acting to detach them from their reason […] upon the rock [were] the scores of lightning scars where over decades and centuries numerous other random bolts had in the natural course of coastal storms struck here upon this, the loftiest and most proximate promontory.” In light of this appeal to logic, the man beseeches King Leonidas to temper valor with wisdom and retreat from their position, “or [valor] is merely recklessness.” Leonidas refuses. Human beings are subject to take from prodigies what they wish to see, with potentially disastrous results.
Pressfield shows a whole range of religious belief among his characters—atheists, doubters, enthusiastic converts, priestesses, and seers. In doing so, he presents a realistic picture of religious faith and its many expressions in a diverse society like the Greek city-states. Most interesting in his portrayal, however, is that he generally keeps a veil over the gods’ characters and intentions. It’s never clear that the gods are simply pro-Greek in the war with the Persians, for instance. This sense of mystery adds to the joys and sorrows of the characters, whose fates never seem to be neatly preordained.
Faith and Divine Intervention ThemeTracker
Faith and Divine Intervention Quotes in Gates of Fire
This I learned then: there is always fire.
An acrid haze hangs in the air night and day, and sulphurous smoke chokes the nostrils […] The pitilessness of flame reinforces the sensation of the gods’ anger, of fate, retribution, deeds done and hell to pay.
All is the obverse of what it had been.
Things are fallen which had stood upright. Things are free which should be bound, and bound which should be free. Things which had been hoarded in secret now blow and tumble in the open, and those who had hoarded them watch with dull eyes and let them go.
“Listen to me, boy. Only gods and heroes can be brave in isolation. A man may call upon courage only one way, in the ranks with his brothers-in-arms, the line of his tribe and his city. Most piteous of all states under heaven is that of a man alone, bereft of the gods of his home and his polis. A man without a city is not a man. He is a shadow, a shell, a joke and a mockery. That is what you have become now, my poor Xeo. No one may expect valor from one cast out alone, cut off from the gods of his home.”
We talked for hours in secret on the pursuit of esoterike harmonia, that state of self-composure which the exercises of the phobologia are designed to produce. As a string of the kithera vibrates purely, emitting only that note of the musical scale which is its alone, so must the individual warrior shed all which is superfluous in his spirit, until he himself vibrates at that sole pitch which his individual daimon dictates. The achievement of this ideal, in Lakedaemon, carries beyond courage on the battlefield; it is considered the supreme embodiment of virtue, andreia, of a citizen and a man.
Put this fatigue-spawned dream from your mind, Your Majesty. It is a false dream, a phantasm. Let the Greeks degrade themselves by resort to superstition. We must be men and commanders, exploiting oracles and portents when they suit the purposes of reason and dismissing them when they do not […] If you retire now, Lord, the Greeks will say it was because you feared a dream and an oracle.
“The gods make us love whom we will not,” the lady declared, “and disrequite whom we will. They slay those who should live and spare those who deserve to die. They give with one hand and take with the other, answerable only to their own unknowable laws […] Now, inspired by blind impulse,” she spoke toward me, “I have saved the life of this boy, my brother’s bastard’s son, and lost my husband’s in the process.”
“The goddess unbound her veil and let it fall. Will you understand, Xeo, if I say that what was revealed, the face beyond the veil, was nothing less than that reality which exists beneath the world of flesh? […] I understood that our roles as humans was to embody here, upon this shadowed and sorrow-bound side of the Veil, those qualities which arise from beyond and are the same on both sides, ever-sustaining, eternal and divine. Do you understand, Xeo? Courage, selflessness, compassion and love.”
She drew up and smiled.
“You think I’m loony, don’t you? I’ve gone cracked with religion. Like a woman.”
“A most impressive testimony of faith, my lord,” the prince spoke after some moments. “Such devout orations cannot fail to sustain your men’s courage. For an hour. Until darkness and fatigue efface the passion of the moment, and fear for themselves and their families resurfaces, as it must, within their hearts.”
The noble repeated with emphasis his report of the mountain track and the Ten Thousand. He declared that if the hand of the gods was at all present in this day’s events, it was not their benevolence seeking to preserve the Hellenic defenders but their perverse and unknowable will acting to detach them from their reason. Surely a commander of Leonidas’s sagacity perceived this, as clearly as he, lifting his glace to the cliff of Kallidromos, could behold there upon the rock the scores of lightning scars…
That peculiar Hellenic form of government called democratia, rule of the people, had plunged its roots deep, nurtured by the blood of war […] To the Greeks, victory was proof of the might and majesty of their gods. These deities, which to our more civilized understanding appear vain and passion-possessed, riddled with folly and so pretty to humanlike faults and foibles as to be unworthy of being called divine, to the Greeks embodied and personified their belief in that which was, if grander than human in scale, yet human in spirit and essence. The Greeks’ sculpture and athletics celebrated the human form, their literature and music human passion, their discourse and philosophy human reason.