This week, we continue our series on Olympian gods, by looking at probably the most olympian of all Olympians, Apollo. And in order to get to grips with what it means to worship Apollo, it is worth asking the extent to which the Greeks believed in their gods.
It’s a tricky subject, because by “the Greeks” we refer to multiple cultures, in multiple places, over the course of a thousand years. And most people nowadays have horifically caricatured versions both of what belief is and what a god is. But one thing we can be sure of is that the Greeks of Homer’s day were not stupid. Of course, they did not believe that if you dare to climb Mount Olympus you could actually go on set and meet the members of Homer’s Olympian cast list. Of course they didn’t believe you could go and converse with the gods, any more than we believe that if you go to a cobbled street in Manchester, you could share a meat and potato pie with Ena Sharples, Vera Duckworth or Dierdre Barlow.
Of course the gods did not exist in the same way that a mountain exists, or a bag of frozen carrots exists, or the Right Honorable Nicolas Clegg arguably exists. I’m reminded of a story about the Danish physicist Neils Bohr. Apparently, a friend visited his house one day and saw that he kept a horse shoe on the front of his house – the symbol that is supposed to bring good luck. And his friend asked him, "Hey, famous physicist Niels Bohr, why would you of all people keep a horseshoe on your house, – surely you don’t believe it brings you good luck?" And Neils Bohr replied, "No – of course I don’t believe in it, but I have it there because I’m told it works even if you don’t believe in it."
That, I think, is how the Greeks engaged with their gods – this is a world of fictional characters who nevertheless represent a set of dynamics that reflect and shape how the world functions. A god simply being the personification of a force that shapes human fate but is beyond human power to control: these gods provide stability, balance, equillibrium, order. And here is where Apollo comes to the fore. For all the multiple attributes of Apollo, principle among them all is his role as both giver and interpreter of law and order.
Surely he’s the archer, god of medicine and sickness, the god of colonies, the god of music. But these all come under his role as lawgiver. Not simply law as written statues, but unwritten rules, customs, social conventions, designed to grease the wheels of Greek society.
In the early pages of the Iliad, Apollo is offended that Agamemnon – the Greek king of kings – is refusing to allow a prisoner to be ransomed, breaking one of the rules of civilized warfare. The wealthy should be able to buy back their family members who’ve been captured in war. How does Apollo react? By shooting his bow at the Greek forces – but this does not mean that actual arrows literally rain down upon them. It was a plague that tore its way through the Greek ships that was interpreted as his arrow. So when Agamemnon repents, the curse is lifted and the plague departs: that, is the origin of Apollo’s role as bringer and healer of sickness!
Apollo is also the god of colonies: it’s hard to police a colony, so you need to have a secure set of laws and customs and conventions in place, and these colonies again, and so these colonies worshipped Apollo. Law is how this god achieves colonial order, Apollo’s ‘spooky action at a distance’ – action at distance, of course, being precisely what an archer does.
And then Apollo is the god of music? What does this have to do with law? Again, the instrument of Apollo is the lyre, a kind of ancient near-eastern six stringed guitar. This was seen as a very different instrument to a flute – because a flute plays only a single note at a time, encouraging an individualism at odds with Olympian picture of society. No, Apollo was a defender of harmony, of stringed instruments, with every member of society fulfilling their alloted role, being in accord with one another – symbolised by the six-stringed lyre or the harp he holds in statues. Everything running smoothly.
Apollo was the god of law, and his hourly fee was extortionate, as any visitor to his oracle at Delphi well knew. That famous inscription, know thyself, was inscribed on the stonework of Apollo’s temple at Delphi – but at roots of this maxim is not some philosophical virtue of self awareness – to know thyself, is rather to know thy limits, to behave thyself, to stay in line, to obey the law. Other inscriptions at Apollo’s temple include such liberating commandments as: nothing to excess, curb thy spirit, observe the limit, fear authority, hate hubris, keep woman under rule, fear authority, bow before the divine. By obeying these rules the cosmic hierarchy remains intact and all is well and good with the world!
But what about those being crushed under weight of this particular cosmic hierarcy. All that Homer will tell us about are the great kings and nobles with divine ancestors – the only exception being the infantryman, Thersites – and when Thersites dares to speak up about the greed and cowardice and stupidity of the pointless war on Troy, Odysseus beats him up and poor Thersites is humiliated infront of the entire army. In fact the show-down between Odysseus and Thersites is like that between Paxman and Russel Brand, only Paxman is armed with a baseball bat. Thersites did not know himself, as a mere commoner, he did not remember his place in the cosmic hierarchy, he got above his station and was guilty of Hubris.
Hubris is defiance against the gods principally because it is defiance against kings and rulers. Apollo will certainly not tolerate this kind of social imbalance amongst his people. Apollo wants everything to run smoothly, and instills the Olypiam ideology deep into the heart of his people. This, after all, is what worship is – as people construct their identity around the dominant values of the day. Thank God we are more advanced than our unenlightened ancestors… or are we?
Our bursar here at Robinson refuses to use a phrase that has become commonplace in the employment market: human resources – because so few people see what view of human life is encapsulated in that phrase. Human resources… Only in a society that views humans this way, could we understand human identity primarily in terms of our usefulness to employers.
A recent book by a leading Belgian psychiastrist (What About Me?, by Paul Verhaeghe), argues that this is the world we live in: Our human identity is shaped by our economic usefulness, and in order to learn this – we are happy to believe ourselves free, whilst not noticing the rules with which we comply. “Every time we walk down the street, turn on the television, or open a magazine we are told how to behave and how to attain the perfection expected of us. We all have to jump through evaluation hoops…”
Of course, anyone that does not make the grade is condemned and humiliated, just like Thersites. The example he uses is from his own specialisation of mental disorders. “According to the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, there has been a spectacular rise in new disorders in each new edition. 180 mental disorders in the second edition, 292 in the third, 365 in the fourth, and the current edition now includes as disorders, all manner of normal human behaviours and emotions. In other words, if you do not build your identity around the prevailing norms, it is because you have a disorder. Apollo, as the god of order, has no room for disorder – for anything or anyone that questions the cosmic hierarchy.
The New Testament reading today, presents its own cosmic hierarchy – and is usually read as promoting a society in which everyone is fulfilling their allotted role so that everything runs in harmony. But the distinctive thing about Paul’s writing here, is that it subverts the hierarchy of the day. This is not simply a division of labour in order to maximise efficient productivity. Don’t let the world squeeze you into its own mould, says Paul. And whatever the cosmic hierarchy here – there are no humans more important than any others. No slaves, no nobles, no kings or emperors. Each member of the body, says Paul, belongs to all the others. No one should have an elevated view of themselves, be devoted one another in love, says Paul, honour one another above yourselves. This is a highly distinctive model of society – which, incidentally, blows out of the water this ridiculous but widespread myth that the bible condones slavery. Paul tears it out at root – presenting a radically different, genuinely non-conformist model of society.
Scripture displaces the cosmic hierarchy – albeit with another one – but one that is far more egalitarian. To the Greek mind, Paul, like others of the early church – are willfully, dangerously, and deliberately guilty of hubris! Of not knowing their place in the cosmic hierarchy, of disrupting the cosmic equilibrium, of subverting the proper authorities, of destroying the cosmic harmony. And this is precisely why the early Christians found themselves in trouble so frequently, why they posed such a threat to the great empire of their own day, and why they were so frequently accused of Atheism: they would not honour the gods of their state. Apollo wants law and order and defence of the status quo no matter what. Paul – as we heard last week - is willing to cause disruption and chaos and disorder in pursuit of a genuinely alternative power dynamic to the top down power structures of the Olympians.