Friday, June 24, 2011

The Ancient Gods and Ethics.

I know I said my blogs this month would be about the virtues from "The Charge of the Goddess," but sometimes the Muses say otherwise.

There exist several books for exploring ethics and morals from a Pagan perspective. The earliest that I know of is "When, Why, If..." by Robin Wood, a very talented Pagan artist. If one works through this book honestly, at the finish the reader will have a much clearer idea of what they personally hold as a code of ethics.

Much more recent, and more apropos to today's topic are Brendan Myers books "A Pagan Testament" and "The Other Side of Virtue: Where Our Virtues Come From, What They Really Mean, and Where They Might Be Taking Us." Myers has his Doctorate in Philosophy. I haven't read the latter, but "Testament" is a great exploration of the stories of the ancient world and Pagan cultures.

I've heard more than one folklorist and student of mythology make the mistake of assuming that the Ancient World had no moral basis. They get caught on the stories of rapine and the mysticism of the myths, and don't look deeper.

The vast majority of the stories that have survived are snippets and bits, broken and unclear. Some of them are missing a word or two, and others have the entire story lost but for a few words, and some of what has survived was meant to be pure entertainment. Even if we were to have the entirety of the stories, they varied from place to place in most cases. Each city, clan, or tribe would have their own understanding of the tales they shared. In the ages since, the Western World has been fascinated with the puzzle of it all, and has assembled composites, which have been told to people as the myths.

This is especially true of the Greek Myths.

Still, we can glean insight into how the Hellenes (the Ancient Greeks) understood right and wrong.

It seems to me that discussion has to start not with the King of the Gods, but with the Goddess of all what is right and true, Themis. One of the daughters of Ouranos and Gaia, today most people know of her a lover of Zeus. The Titaness was first and foremost the Bringer of Law, who taught mankind the concepts of hospitality, proper relationships, and social order. Her children are most often listed as the Horai (the Seasons, whose names translate as Good Order, Peace, and Justice), the Fates, and Prometheus (whose name means Forethought, which also means She is the mother of Epimetheus, Afterthought.) She sat beside Zeus as a counselor and arbiter.

That isn't to say that She and Zeus always made decisions that fit with our modern conceptions of right and wrong. It was, after all, a totally different society from our own.

Many of Zeus' epithets hints as his role as a God who governs over ethics and morals and right behavior. He was Ktêsios, the God of the Home, who was always honored as part of the proper activities of the family and household. He was Boulaios, the God of the Council, and Amboulios, Counsellor.

Here is a small list of relevant names:
Kosmêtês Orderer
Epidôtês Giver of Good
Theos Agathos The Good God
Xenios God of Hospitality
Meilikhios Merciful
Palamnaios Punisher of Murderers
Agoraios God of the Marketplace

Looking at the ways in which Zeus was understood to exist in the lives of the Hellenes, it becomes challenging to understand how anyone can honestly argue that the Ancient Greek world lacked in ethical or moral bases.

And that's without even beginning to discuss the moral philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Diomedes, or Epicures (or dozens of others.)

Just scraping the surface of one culture here. I don't want to bore you or confuse anyone with more.

This is also where we get back to one of the themes that keeps cropping up here. If one is inspired by the ancient world's stories of the Gods, and if one is worshipping those Divinities, then one should eventually look at how proper or right action is expressed by those same. Whether you find that Plato's "Republic" is inspiring or that it offends your modern egalitarian virtues, or if you look at the role of Themis and Zeus, ultimately, the pressure is on you.

You have to find your way forward. That's where books like "When, Why, If..." and authors like Brendan Myers can really help. Most of us don't have the time to become classical scholars, but would still like to live good lives that are reflective of our spiritual lives. To do that, we have to be willing to honestly face down our own actions, the consequences of what we have done, and to be willing to keep going. It also means being willing to screw up on occasion.

Far from being bereft of moral thought, the Ancient world was intensely centered around proper and right action, even if the modern world doesn't always agree with their conclusions, something that is also certainly true of mainstream religious history as much as our own.

The question becomes then, do you have the courage to seek out the guidance of the Gods with honesty and conscious acceptance of the hard work that is involved? Even if one is following a path that offers a seemingly clear set of principles or virtues, there is still the process of negotiating how you understand those same.

Sources: entries on Zeus and Themis

To buy the aforementioned books:
Robin Wood "When, Why, If..."
Brendan Myers


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I think where most people get the idea that the ancients either have little or no morals comes from the stories about the Gods themselves. Zeus sleeps around on Hera, usually via rape. Hera then punishes the raped victim & her child instead of Zeus. Aphrodite punishes the woman deemed more beautiful than Her. Etc...