The Apostle Paul visits the city of Athens, home of Greek philosophy. Click on the link below to listen (22:00).
The early church has decided to reach out to Gentiles, but they are about to be faced with stark cultural differences that they know nothing about. Click on the link below to listen (17:00).
Over the next several weeks, I’ll share excerpts from some lectures I’m giving this fall at Portage Chapel Hill United Methodist Church in Portage, Michigan (USA). Today I introduce the subject of the course: how the Christ Culture grew to be a world-changing power within the Graeco-Roman and Jewish cultures of the time. Click on the link below to listen (13:15).
(Correction: H. Richard Niebuhr was the author of Christ and Culture, not his brother Reinhold Niebuhr.)
To listen to the audio version, please click on the link below (10:59):
We have seen that the heroes of the world’s religious narratives have generally grown to their full stature as individuals by the end of the story, and this personal development turns out to have been the purpose of their struggles. In most cases, however, the world’s religious narratives do not promote the pursuit of personal salvation only. The heroes often carry their society—or at least their social circle—forward with them, up to a point. The world around them is enriched to some extent by the challenges they have overcome. Furthermore, their victories point toward a larger Story extending beyond their own generation.
As a result of their victories, some heroes become better leaders of their people. Opo-kuni-nusi is prepared to become the creator and ruler of Japan after subduing his father-in-law and defeating his brothers. Aeneas’ travels prepare him to rule Rome and to lead Rome itself toward world leadership. The sons of Tate, after traveling around the edge of the world and overcoming many hardships, are ready to become the Four Winds.
Some come away with new technology or with the power to do things that they could not do before, and thus benefit those around them. The Quiché Maya obtain fire. Some North American peoples gain the ability to grow corn or to lure buffalo. Atrahasis persuades the gods to promise that they will never again destroy the entire human race at one time.
Some become more helpful to those around them. Perceval, an innocent fool who cares about no one but himself, gains sensitivity to the pain of others. In the name of Jesus, the disciples of Christ give sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, and those who have diseases are made whole. Wazi and Wakanka, the grandparents of the sons of Tate, become wise counselors.
The Greek poet Hesiod writes, “Often even a whole city suffers for a bad man who sins…. But they who give straight judgments to strangers and to the men of the land, and go not aside from what is just, their city flourishes, and the people prosper in it” (Hesiod, Works and Days, lines 235-245 and 225-230, pp. 21, 19).
Early in the Ramayana, Rama’s brother Bharata speaks scornfully of his mother for demanding Rama’s exile. But the hermit Bharadvaja tells him: “O Bharata, thou shouldst not reproach [thy mother]; Rama’s exile will prove a great source of felicity and his banishment will be productive of great good…” (Ramayana, volume 1, book 2, chapter 92, p. 380).
And so it turns out to be. Having completed his work, Rama gets back almost everything he has lost: Sita, all of his brothers, his home, and even his kingdom. As king, he blesses his people with prosperity and happiness throughout his long reign. And gods, saints, and ascetics everywhere can live in peace once again.
To contribute to society is considered important even in those narrative traditions which teach detachment from the physical world as the basic spiritual goal. In the Bhagavad-Gita, for example, what Krishna advocates is not renunciation of activity but of the personal possession of the fruits of activity. The plot of the Gita has to do with Krishna convincing Arjuna to put aside his scruples and fight against his near relations in battle. Krishna does not want Arjuna to withdraw from the whole bloody mess and meditate on a mountaintop. He merely wants Arjuna to do the right thing for the right reasons. He wants Arjuna to live purposefully and to fight the battles that are his to fight, but to do so without pinning all his hopes on the outcome. He is to live and to fight, but not for himself; he is to do all that he does for Krishna, and he is to accept from Krishna whatever comes.
Moreover, to do everything for Krishna equates to doing it for the sake of the Big Picture, for the sake of the ongoing saga of all of life. “I exist in all creatures,” Krishna says, “so the disciplined man devoted to me/ grasps the oneness of life” (The Bhagavad-Gita, Barbara Stoler Miller, trans. (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), 6:31). Later he adds:
I am the taste in water, Arjuna,
the light in the moon and sun,
OM resonant in all sacred lore,
the sound in space, valor in men.
I am the pure fragrance
in earth, the brilliance in fire,
the life in all living creatures,
the penance in ascetics.
Know me, Arjuna,
as every creature’s timeless seed,
the understanding of intelligent men,
the brilliance of fiery heroes (Ibid., 7:6-10).
Most of chapter 10 is taken up with a catalogue of “I am” statements of this same sort, the intent of which is to show that “Krishna is all that is” (Ibid., 7:19).
What is called for is clearly not a detachment from one’s responsibilities. It is instead a detachment from one’s own personal wants and needs, which often conflict with the bigger picture—the totality of life—which Krishna represents. Krishna does not recommend withdrawal from society. He merely asks his followers to renounce the personal enjoyment of the fruits of their actions. The individual is still challenged to perform specific work but to do so for Krishna (that is, for the sake of the ongoing saga of life) rather than for the sake of one’s own individual enjoyment.
The same is true of the writings of Lao-tze, although his terminology and emphasis are different. While the Gita emphasizes that detached action, performed with understanding, is superior to inaction, Lao-tze sounds quite often like he is advocating inaction. He repeatedly uses the word wu-wei, which is usually translated as “doing nothing.” He seems to applaud inaction, and he appears to want people to withdraw from participation in human affairs.
This, however, is a superficial reading. For Lao-tze, to do nothing is to let Tao do its own work through you. “Doing nothing” means to be receptive to Tao in all that one does. (Tao Teh Ching, chapter 6. In Lin Yutang, The Wisdom of Laotse (New York: The Modern Library, 1976)). Tao is not indifferent to life nor does it require people to withdraw from life. Tao itself is “Dark and dim,/ Yet latent in it is the life-force” (Ibid., chapter 21).
Like the Gita, the writings of Lao-tze encourage people to renounce personal pleasures and goals in order to be in harmony with the Force at work in the larger picture, in this case referred to as Tao (Ibid., chapter 25). The Taoist wants to be of use to others, but in accordance with Tao:
The best of men is like water;
Water benefits all things
And does not compete with them (Ibid., chapter 8)
Far from withdrawing from the world, the Taoist wants to “benefit all things” by attaining harmony with the universe and moving in the direction in which the universe is already going. It is precisely for this reason that the individual cannot be given prominence. Although Lao-tze seems to encourage radical withdrawal from society, he is actually advocating the withdrawal of one’s own desires in order to attain harmony with life’s deepest forces. Lao-tze does not want people to turn away from life but to turn to life. He believes that it is our frantic search for personal happiness that blinds us to life’s real depths:
Therefore the Sage desires to have no desire,
And values not objects difficult to obtain.
Learns that which is unlearned,
And restores what the multitude have lost.
That he may assist in the course of Nature
And not presume to interfere (Ibid., chapter 64).
To “assist in the course of Nature” is the goal of Taoist practice, and to attain this goal is to become useful to others. What is unique about Taoism is that its adherents seek to be useful without being invasive. They want to be useful in the way that an open window, a hollow vessel, or the spaces between the spokes of a wheel are useful (Ibid., chapter 11). “Who is calm and quiet becomes the guide for the universe” (Ibid., chapter 45).
Lao-tze cares very much about this world and the throbbing life going on everywhere within it. The withdrawal that he advocates is that of the individual self, so that one is free to become unified with the larger activities of life going on all around oneself.
Even in those traditions which seem to promote withdrawal from the world, then, the aim is to be of use to the world after all.
To listen to the audio version, please click on the link below (8:06):
In the stories we have been surveying, life is viewed as more than an arena for mere enjoyment of pleasure or avoidance of pain. It is a time to make progress in the formation of the soul, a progress which is possible only by surmounting difficulties.
Although Christ teaches his disciples to pray for help in avoiding temptation (Matthew 6:13; Luke 11:4), this does not mean that Christians are to request freedom from adversity. The Epistle of James in the New Testament advises: “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” (The Greek word translated “steadfastness” is hupomenay, which means patient endurance of suffering or a perservering state of mind.) “And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4 RSV).
In this passage, the word “perfect” and the phrase “full effect” are English translations of the Greek word teleios. This word was important in ancient Greek thought, thanks especially to the writings of Aristotle (a few hundred years before Christ). It refers to the full realization of an idea or the complete maturation of a thing into what it is supposed to be. What James is saying, then, is that Christians’ struggles can transform them fully into the people God wants them to become.
The same word is used in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. In one section of the sermon, Christ talks about the necessity of loving one’s enemies. He concludes that section of his remarks with these daunting words: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48 KJV). The word “perfect” in both phrases is teleios again in the Greek. Christ is telling his followers that their goal should be to become fully matured into the compassionate people God wants them to be. And, as we have seen repeatedly, this happens as heroes take on challenges that transform them.
The ancient Greek poet Hesiod writes: “Badness can be got easily and in shoals: the road to her is smooth, and she lives very near us. But between us and Goodness the gods have placed the sweat of our brows: long and steep is the path that leads to her, and it is rough at the first; but when a man has reached the top, then is she easy to reach, though before that she was hard.” (Hesiod, Works and Days, lines 285-295. In Hugh G. Evelyn-White, trans., Hesiod, Homeric Hymns, Epic Cycle, Homerica, Loeb Classical Library, volume 57 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 25.)
The phrase “sweat of our brows” does not refer merely to the performance of menial tasks, although there is no doubt that Hesiod does have that kind of work in mind. More importantly, it refers to the difficulties which arise in trying to live well. Hesiod believes that he lives in a benighted age, a day when true heroes are gone from the earth. In such a time, it is hard work to live a praiseworthy life. “For now truly is a race of iron,” he writes (as opposed to earlier ages of gold, silver, and bronze), “and men never rest from labor and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them. But, notwithstanding, even these shall have some good mingled with their evils” (Ibid., lines 175-180, pp. 13-15).
That last remark, for Hesiod, is what matters. Despite all the troubles humans face, there is some good to be had. But it will not come without hard work.
The subject of Plato’s Republic is whether such hard work pays off in the end. Socrates and his friends consider whether it would be worthwhile to live justly if they were to receive no rewards for being just. By the end of the book they decide that right living is its own reward. On this note, Socrates asks his friends:
And shall we not agree that all things that come from the gods work together for the best for him that is dear to the gods. . . ?
By all means [they reply].
This, then, [he continues] must be ourconviction about the just man, that whether he fall into poverty or disease or any other supposed evil, for him all these things will finally prove good, both in life and in death. For by the gods assuredly that man will never be neglected who is willing and eager to be righteous, and by the practice of virtue to be likened unto God so far as that is possible for man. (Plato, Republic 10.612e—613b. In Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, eds., The Collected Dialogues of Plato (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 837-838.)
Notice, however, that one must be interested in self-improvement in order to appreciate the benefits of adversity. By themselves, problems do not make life better. Suffering is advantageous only if the heroes use their experiences as opportunities to grow into exemplary individuals. As they seize these opportunities, they benefit even from misfortune.
The Apostle Paul, in the New Testament, writes: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 KJV). What Paul says about the Christian life is proclaimed by all of these stories, from a wide variety of religious traditions. The obstacles that the heroes face along the way can speed them toward victory and, more importantly, toward transformation.
But the heroes have to be receptive to such transformation. It is not that all things work together for good for everybody. All things work together for good to them that love God (or rather, to those who are willing to accept adversity as a gift from God and use it to become better people). As one Book of Mormon prophet says in reference to God: “He shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain” (Book of Mormon, II Nephi 2:2 (Kirtland ed: 1:61)). This consecration of the heroes’ afflictions for their spiritual gain is what life is ultimately about, according to these stories.
To listen to the audio version, please click on the link below (10:13):
In retrospect, we can see that this transformation is not an afterthought on the part of the storytellers. Rather, all the obstacles the heroes faced were intended for this purpose: to mold them into exemplary individuals.
Heracles is born strong, but he is not born great. Greatness comes only as he performs the Twelve Labors set before him by Eurystheus (Gods and Heroes of the Greeks: The Library of Apollodorus, Michael Simpson, trans. (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1976), chapter 5). Each task seems impossible, even for a man of superhuman strength. He must kill a lion that cannot be hurt by weapons and a many-headed monster that grows two heads for each one that is cut off. He must clean Augeus’ thousands of stables in a single day. He must bring back the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, even though he does not know where they are to be found. He must drag up into daylight Cerberus, the three-headed dog-guardian of Hades.
As Heracles accomplishes one and then another of these assignments, he grows in stature. Nor could he have become great in any other way. To be born strong means nothing. In Greek mythology, the point is to use such strength in overcoming impossible odds. The Greeks celebrate accomplishments, not mere potential. And accomplishments come about only through hard work.
The hero Theseus understands this early in life (Plutarch’s Lives (2 vols.), trans. John Dryden, ed. A. H. Clough (New York: Random House/Modern Library, 1992), vol. 1, 1-24). He has just come of age and must go to Athens in search of his father, who left his mother before Theseus was born. His mother wants him to cruise to Athens in comfort, but young Theseus refuses. Referring to his cousin Heracles, he points out that one does not become a hero by taking the easy way. Instead, Theseus travels to Athens by foot, using a highway that is known to be full of danger. Along the way, he meets a number of villains and serves them justice. By the time he arrives at Athens, his fame has preceded him.
But Theseus’ ascent toward greatness has just begun. Next he survives an assassination attempt by his stepmother. Then he voluntarily joins a delegation sailing for Crete. For diplomatic reasons, this group of young people must be sacrificed to the Minotaur—a hungry creature who is half-bull and half-man. With the help of Ariadne, daughter of the king of Crete, he navigates the Minotaur’s maze, kills the Minotaur, and leads the other members of the group to safety. Unfortunately, his father kills himself over a mixup in signals. (Theseus is supposed to replace the black flag aboard ship if he returns successful, but he forgets to do so.) Theseus now becomes the leader in Athens and inspires the Athenians to form a commonwealth in which all people can be equal.
As in the case of Heracles, Theseus attains greatness only by taking on tough assignments and handling them with courage and good heart. Theseus becomes wise through his struggles, and the Athenians benefit from his wise leadership.
Moving on to other texts……
After laying on his back on the floor, St. Francis of Asisi commands Brother Bernard to stand on top of him with one foot on his master’s neck and the other on his mouth, firing insults at him. Brother Bernard cannot disobey the order, but he carries it out as “courteously” as possible (Raphael Brown, trans., The Little Flowers of St. Francis (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1958), Part 1, Number 3, p. 47). Strange as this behavior may seem to those outside the Franciscan order, St. Francis hopes to gain something from being mistreated in this way by his subordinate. He hopes to be shaped into a humbler person through the experience.
On the other hand, Francis is quite willing to spread the humiliation around when he feels it will be helpful. On one occasion he embarrasses Brother Masseo by commanding him to twirl in place until he is too dizzy to stand (Ibid., Number 11). And then Francis gives him a number of menial tasks in order to test his humility (Ibid., Number 12). We are not to feel sorry for Brother Masseo, however, for he greatly needs the practice. When an angel messenger knocks loudly at the gate of the monastery, the friar lectures him on the correct way to knock. And when the angel knocks loudly a second time, Brother Masseo tells him, “You did not knock the way I told you to do” (Ibid., Number 4, p. 50). Brother Masseo has some lessons to learn, even if it means that he must twirl in place on occasion.
But of all the members of the Franciscan order, Brother Juniper takes the prize for consistent self-deprecation. He loves to be ridiculed, and so he is pleased when he is almost hanged as a result of a misunderstanding (Ibid., Part 3, Number 3). He goes into town naked so that children will mock him, and when his fame travels ahead of him on a trip to Rome, he behaves foolishly so that people will lose their reverence for him (Ibid., Numbers 8-9).
As masochistic as this behavior may seem, the storytellers are trying to show how much Brother Juniper has grown. When he first started out trying to overcome temptation, the hardest thing for him to endure was an insult. These stories illustrate how thoroughly he has “conquered himself” (Ibid., Number 3, p. 226). And he has done this by repeatedly confronting the thing he finds most unbearable.
On one occasion he asks rhetorically: Who wouldn’t carry a basket of manure through town in return for a house full of gold? (He assumes that we would all line up if this opportunity were extended to us.) Then he adds: “Ah, why do we not want to endure a little shame in order to gain eternal life..?” (Ibid., Number 12, pp. 235-236). Heroes in all the world’s religious traditions have had to carry their baskets of manure and endure their shame in order to achieve greatness.
The Buddha tells his disciples to imagine a beauty contest (Jataka, Number 96). Between the winning contestant and the cheering crowd comes a man carrying a pot of oil filled to the brim. Behind him is a swordsman, poised to cut off his head if he spills a single drop. The crowd is shouting about how beautiful the woman is, and the man with the pot has the best view in the house. But if he takes his eyes off the pot for even one second, it will cost him his life. Somehow he must get through the crowd without spilling the oil.
“That would be hard!” the Buddha’s disciples say.
But the Buddha disagrees. It would be easy! Anyone could stay focused on the pot of oil if he had a swordsman breathing down his neck. The hard thing is to keep your thoughts collected at all times, under all circumstances, without a swordsman behind you. And that is what you must do if you want to attain enlightenment.
Click on the link below to listen to the audio version and brief commentary (9:47):
In Virgil’s Aenead, the heroes also make significant mistakes. Although it is decreed by the gods that Aeneas and his people are to leave Troy for Latium, where they will found the city of Rome, none of the gods will tell Aeneas where he is to go or how he is to get there. “We built a fleet…” Aeneas says, “uncertain which way Fate led or where to stop” (Vergil, The Aeneid, Frank O. Copley, trans. (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1975), Book 3, vv. 5, 7). Naturally, they commit errors along the way.
At first they settle in a new place and merely try to rebuild what they previously had. They name their ill-fated settlement “New Pergama” (Ibid., vv. 132-133). Since “Pergama” is another name for “Troy,” this means that they are simply trying to rebuild their home city in a new location, just as Aeneas’s friend Helenus has succeeded in doing (Ibid., vv. 346-351). But the gods have not called them forth from Troy merely to reconstruct their previous life somewhere else. They have been evicted from that city so that, after many trials, they may form a new society—one that will be fit to govern all the nations of the world (Ibid., Book 6, vv. 847-853). Before long they realize they have made a mistake and that they must leave New Pergama.
But they have made this error innocently. Before their journey to this place, Aeneas pleaded with Apollo to give him a clue:
Who will guide us, and where?
Where shall we settle?
Grant, father, a sign. . . (Ibid., Book 3, vv. 88-89)
The sign came immediately, but it was cryptic. Unfortunately, the message seemed clear enough to Aeneas’s father, Anchises, and Aeneas and his fleet sailed for Crete on his advice. That is how they arrived at New Pergama.
Now they realize that they have erred, and Aeneas asks for better guidance. He is told that Anchises has misunderstood the oracle. Hearing this, Anchises tries again and this time turns out to be right (Ibid., vv. 90-191). But it is very much a guessing game. The gods communicate, but humans must hypothesize about the meaning of the gods’ message.
In Greek myth, too, it is common for protagonists to misunderstand oracles. Adults often try to prevent prophesied events by destroying the infants about whom the prophecies speak. But their actions serve only to bring the predictions into being.
King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes are told that their future child will kill his father and sleep with his mother. So when a child is born to them, they pierce his feet, tie them together, and leave him to die on a mountain. A shepherd finds him, however, and he is adopted by the king and queen of Corinth. As an adult, he too is told that he will kill his father and marry his mother, and he too tries to prevent the prophecy from coming true. He leaves home so that he will be nowhere near his father or mother. Of course, his departure is a mistake, because it brings him one step closer to fulfilling the prophecy, a fact he does not realize, precisely because he is mistaken about who his father and mother are.
On one of his journeys he is insulted by a fellow traveler. In an early example of road rage, he kills the man, totally unaware that his victim is his real father King Laius. On his way through Thebes, he solves the riddle of the Sphinx, becoming a local hero. He is invited to marry the newly-widowed queen, Jocasta (his real mother). Thus the prophecy comes true, precisely because of mistakes made by the protagonists intended to prevent it from happening.
The future Buddha spends an entire lifetime making a mistake. He becomes a spiritual aspirant and practices extreme asceticism. He is so hard on his body that he at last dies of hunger without having gained any spiritual advancement. Only in the final moments of his life does he realize what he has done (E. B. Cowell, ed., The Jataka: or Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births (6 volumes), (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1995), Number 94).
The prophet Elijah falters at the high point of his career. Immediately after defeating the prophets of Baal, he becomes afraid of the queen and runs to God’s holy mountain for protection. God repeatedly demands to know why he has come uninvited (I Kings 19).
Christ’s disciples are frequently mistaken about what he is telling them. He warns them about hypocrisy and they think he is scolding them for running out of bread (Mark 8:14-21; Matthew 16:5-12). They panic during a storm at sea, seemingly unaware of his power to save them (Mark 4:40). While a large crowd watches, they are unable to rescue a demon-possessed person and Christ must step in and do it for them (Matthew 17:19-20).
Simon Peter is shown as most inept. When someone asks him whether Christ pays taxes, Peter answers Yes. Christ calls him aside and tells him the answer is No—and that he should have known better (Matthew 17:24-27). When Peter sees Christ walking on water, he tries to join him but trips and has to be rescued (Matthew 14:22-33). He argues with his Master about the importance of the cross (Matthew 16:21-23). When Christ needs him for moral support, he falls asleep (Mark 14:32-42). When he uses a sword in Christ’s defense, Christ rebukes him (John 18:10-11). Although he claims he will gladly die for his master, he later denies him to save his own life (John 13:36-38).
“How hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!” Christ exclaims, and although his disciples may well have replied, “Amen to that,” instead they are amazed and misunderstand him again(Mark 10:24 (RSV)). [Although the original Greek manuscripts that are considered most authoritative omit mention of “those who trust in riches,” many English translations add this phrase anyway. See this passage in Kurt Aland, et. al., The Greek New Testament, 3rd ed. (corrected)(West Germany: Biblia-Druck GmbH Stuttgart, 1983).]
But it is usually not sin or disobedience that causes these mistakes. Blunders occur in these stories because the heroes have not yet gained the maturity of outlook that will allow them to react to such situations correctly. The fact that they err is simply an indication that they have much to learn—that they have not fully arrived at the goal which their story is intended to illustrate.
Christ’s disciples are neither stupid nor disobedient. They do, however, fall short of the level of faith they are capable of having; and, because they lack faith, they also lack the ability to understand the deeper meaning of Christ’s words. But he keeps working with them anyway, because he has faith in them.
He criticizes Simon Peter severely, but not because he does not appreciate Simon. On the contrary, it is because Christ has chosen Simon as one of the leaders of his future church that he expects so much more from him than from the other disciples. It is fascinating how the gospels, which are collections of the stories told orally by the first century church, contain so many unflattering references to one of the church’s first great leaders. This fact alone seems to indicate that the church did not interpret Simon Peter’s mistakes as failures but as a significant aspect of his training. As the church retold each of his errors, they celebrated his moving ever closer to becoming “The Rock.”
So also there is great worth in the future Buddha’s mistake about extreme asceticism, even though it costs him an entire lifetime. What makes him a great soul is his ability to learn from his mistake. In the final moments of his life, he recognizes his error, and he carries that recognition with him into his next incarnation, forever wiser for the experience (Jataka 94).
Click on the link below to listen to the audio version (8:31):
In the Mesopotamian flood story Atrahasis, the necessity of divine clue-giving (as opposed to outright revelation) is explained as the result of an oath made by one of the gods. Early in the story, the hero and his god communicate directly:
Now there was one Atrahasis
Whose ear was open (to) his god Enki.
He would speak with his god
And his god would speak with him.
(Atrahasis I, vii. In Stephanie Dalley, trans., Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.)
Enki is “the talking god” in Mesopotamian narratives. The rest of the divine assembly can barely tolerate humans. In fact, the other two of the top three gods (the top three being Anu, Enlil, and Enki) soon develop a hatred toward humans, who are too numerous and make too much racket. They try to destroy the human race by spreading a disease among them. For a time they appear to succeed, until the human Atrahasis complains to Enki, and Enki tells Atrahasis how to stop the plague (Atrahasis, I, vii-viii).
Enlil and Anu try again to wipe out the human race, this time by drought. But once again their plans are foiled by Enki, who reveals to Atrahasis how he and his fellow humans can end the drought (Ibid., II, i-ii).
Enlil and Anu have had enough. They make Enki swear an oath that he himself will destroy the human race by flood, and this time he must not divulge their plans to any human being.
Enki is bound by his oath not to communicate with Atrahasis directly, but that does not stop him from trying to communicate indirectly. Atrahasis weeps and says:
Enki [would speak to me], but he is under oath,
So he will give [instructions] in dreams (Ibid., II, iii)
This, however, is harder work for Atrahasis. “Indicate to me the meaning of the dream,” he pleads (Ibid., III, i). Even though his name means “overly-clever,” Atrahasis doesn’t get the point. (John Gardner and John Maier (with Richard A. Henshaw), Gilgamesh: Translated from the Sin-leqi-unninni Version (New York: First Vintage Books/Random House, 1984), 65, note 40.)
Finally, Enki comes up with an ingenious solution. He speaks to the wall of Atrahasis’s house, telling the wall what it is that he cannot tell Atrahasis. “Wall, listen constantly to me!” Enki commands. “Reed hut, make sure you attend to all my words!” (Atrahasis, III, i). Of course, Atrahasis is on the other side of the wall, but since Enki is not addressing him, the terms of his oath are satisfied. Or perhaps the wall passes the message on to Atrahasis like the whistling of the wind. This interpretation agrees with the god Anu’s suspicion that Enki “made sure that the [reed hut] disclosed the order.” (W. G. Lambert and A. R. Millard, Atrahasis: The Babylonian Story of the Flood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 11-12. The quotation is from Atrahasis, III, vi.) At any rate, the hero finally gets the message, builds an ark, and is saved from the impending flood.
In the Norse epic The Saga of the Volsungs, the god Odin keeps popping up unexpectedly as an old man who gives counsel. Although Odin is the ruler of this world, his interventions are subtle and, in most cases, anonymous. Sometimes he does not even make a personal appearance but communicates his advice through intermediaries (through animals, for example). But whether in person or secondhand, Odin does little more than give advice. He does not do for the heroes what they must do for themselves, even though, as the greatest of gods, he is capable of helping them.
On the one occasion in which he does intervene directly in a battle, it is not to help but to hinder. Just when Sigmund (one of his favorites) appears victorious in battle, Odin breaks Sigmund’s sword in half. (Jesse L. Byock, trans., The Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), chapter 11). After receiving mortal wounds from his enemies, Sigmund dies knowing that Odin himself has decreed his death. He is cheered, however, by the knowledge that his unborn son Sigurd will repair the sword and avenge him (Ibid., chapter 12).
Odin is not so much interested in helping his favorites as in giving them opportunities to achieve greatness. Even in death, Sigmund shows himself to be a true hero in the Norse tradition, and that is what matters.
In most of the world’s religious narratives, however, the advancement of the plot toward the final objective does not depend primarily on divine visitations even if these do occur from time to time. Rather, divine beings play a much more fundamental, albeit more subtle, role within the story itself.
The narrators of these stories recognize a quiet force at work in human affairs. This force acts like a kind of cosmic Author, masterfully weaving peoples’ thoughts and actions into a story—a story that none of the participants totally understand or control. In some narrative traditions the Author may be one or more gods, while in others it is an impersonal influence that overrides the actions of the gods themselves. But whatever attribution is given to it, these narratives reveal an implicit faith that the course of human events is fundamentally right and that, for people of faith at least, things work out the way they are supposed to.
This is what Oedipus realizes just before his death. He has wandered for many years with no place to call home, carrying with him no other hope than Apollo’s promise that he will at last find a resting place. Now he has made his way to the sacred grove of the Furies at Colonus, and he is sure that this is the place. Apollo long ago told him that he would be given signs when he had found his destination, and that promise is about to be fulfilled. But Oedipus no longer needs signs. Praying to the Furies, he says:
I am sure of it now, sure that you guided me
With feathery influence upon this road,
And led me here into your hallowed wood.
(Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, Robert Fitzgerald, trans. In David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, eds., The Complete Greek Tragedies: Sophocles I (New York: Washington Square Press, 1972), Scene 1, lines 96-98.)
Oedipus is not alone in this respect. It is by a “feathery influence” that the heroes of these stories are guided toward their destinies. Few roadmarks exist, and those which do are hard to read. The heroes are not pushed along with heavy hand. They are influenced—quietly, almost imperceptibly, yet powerfully. Even when no miracles occur, these stories reflect the vast power of the gods (or at least the essential correctness of the structure of the universe) because, simply through the playing out of events, right wins out over wrong.
And this does not occur in spite of the plans and schemes of evil people. It is precisely by means of such obstacles that things turn out the way they are supposed to. Far more powerful than any isolated miracle is this “feathery influence” that makes adversity ultimately useful rather than destructive.
Click on the link below to listen to the audio version (5:58).
I’ve been saying that the gods in these stories often leave much for the heroes to interpret. This does not mean, however, that the gods cannot provide clues for the heroes’ benefit. In many of the world’s sacred stories, such clue-giving is the primary means of communication between gods and humans.
The goddess Athena could easily tell young Telemachus that his father Odysseus is still alive, but she does not, even though she wants him to go out and find his father. Instead, she comes to Telemachus disguised as an old seafarer. (This is from Homer, The Odyssey, Robert Fitzgerald, trans. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday/Anchor Books, 1963), book 1.) She tells him that his father is rumored to be alive, and she advises him to discover if the rumor is true. He takes her advice, but he meets opposition from some of the locals who want to keep him at home. Athena comes to his aid, but again only in disguise—this time as his trusted friend Mentor (book 2).
Telemachus sails for Pylos and speaks with old Nestor, from whom he hopes to obtain news about his father. Nestor knows nothing about Odysseus’ whereabouts, but he suggests that Telemachus travel to Sparta and ask Menelaus, whose voyage home was long and roundabout. Meanwhile, Athena remains with Telemachus. She knows full well where Odysseus is, but she continues to masquerade as Mentor.
Telemachus travels to Sparta and speaks with Menelaus, and it is there that he learns the truth: his father is alive, but a nymph is holding him captive on a deserted island.
Telemachus has had to work hard to receive this important news, but Menelaus, too, obtained it only after a struggle. During his voyage home, Menelaus was himself in desperate need of information. He knew that the shape-shifting god Proteus could tell him what he needed to know, but he also knew that the god would not answer his questions willingly. To receive information from Proteus, one must lay hold of the god and hang on tight. If Menelaus and his men could get their hands on Proteus and hold him no matter what, then eventually he would give up and answer whatever questions they asked (book 4).
That is what they did: they approached Proteus while he was sleeping and held him tight. The god awoke, startled. He changed into a lion, but they did not let go of him. He became a serpent, but they held tight. He even turned himself into water, but somehow they hung on.
At last the god surrendered and answered the questions they had come to ask. During their conversation, Menelaus happened to learn about the fate of Odysseus.
Athena could have saved everybody a lot of trouble by telling Telemachus the truth right in the beginning, but that is not how greatness is achieved in Greek myth. Telemachus and Menelaus both benefit from their struggles. To make things easier for them would be to cheat them out of the opportunity to accomplish great things.
Later in the story, Athena appears before Odysseus in disguise, too, but he is so far along in his development that such treatment is not necessary (book 13). He plays his part so expertly that Athena smirks and reveals herself to him. Making him her co-conspirator, she then disguises him and advises him to play the role of a vagabond. In his case as in Athena’s, the masquerade serves a purpose: it allows Telemachus, as well as Odysseus’ wife Penelope, to demonstrate their greatness under trying circumstances. To reveal his identity prematurely would make the game too easy for all the contestants, besides alerting Odysseus’ enemies to imminent danger.
Please click on the audio file for my brief commentary.
There are several reasons why the heroes of the world’s sacred stories must wait a long time for the things they desire. Click on the link below to listen (12 min).
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