“Myth is what we call other people’s religion”, Campbell, J.
The word MYTH has acquired a new meaning, one that is synonymous with fiction, half-true or an irrational/superstitious popular belief that can be easily put to the test and busted by an experiment – those of you who haven’t seen any episodes of the acclaimed series Mythbusters, please raise your hands! However, one must not forget the importance of MYTHS as seen in the context of this blog.
And in case you ask yourself what specific context it is, Campbell’s quotation opening this post provides an excellent explanation. Myths exemplify and bring to life a series of principles and convictions shared by any society – be it ancient or modern. We live surrounded by our own myths in the West: Santa Claus and Superman are modern ones. Some of the stories taken from the Bible account for some of the more ancient ones, such as Jonah and the whale or David and Goliath.
Therefore, what we call Greek myths were, to the Greeks, at that time, their professed religion. But what kind of religion was that?
We all know they worshipped a myriad of gods and deities and that, far from being perfect, these gods and deities displayed many of the vices and imperfections characteristic of human beings. Zeus, for example, is said to possess a philandering behaviour. Apollo, god associated with law and order skinned Marsyas alive and tried to ravish some innocent nymphs – Daphne was one of them.
From our Judeo-Christian perspective, Greek religion was fairly pessimistic. Why? Let’s go to the facts:
- Human life was ephemeral, filled with preoccupations and suffering – according to Sophocles and Pindar, better for men was to have never existed or, being born, die as soon as possible;
- There wasn’t a single man to whom Zeus wouldn’t send a thousand evils (Mimnermus of Colophon);
- Death, however, would not solve men’s immediate troubles as it did not bring existence to an end;
- Good deeds did not guarantee peace in the afterlife – in fact, it did not matter if you had been good or not. The only mortals inflicted with eternal tortures were Ixion, Tantalus and Sisyphus – and that was because they had defied Zeus himself;
- Human life was decided at the moment people were born by the Moirai, three women who represented fate or destiny. They determined how long each newborn would live;
- In the Homeric poems, although the Moirai were related with the limit and end of life, Zeus appeared as the guider of destiny;
- Human beings were not, stictu sensu, created by the gods. Therefore, men did not expect that their prayers would grant sympathy or favours from them.
The Greeks, however, did not see their beliefs through pessimism-tainted glasses. For them, life had to be lived to the full due to its precarious and ephemeral condition. In other words, they had nothing to lose. The average Greek knew his life was limited by his condition as a mortal (human being) and by his moira (fate). So much so that he would do his best to seize the day and take advantage of everything life granted him: youth, health, happiness and the opportunities to practise temperance and virtue. This JOY OF LIFE had nothing of profane. It revealed the immense satisfaction of existing and participating of the spontaneity of life.
Instead of inhibiting men’s attitudes and behaviours, this “tragic” vision of life led to the valorization of whatever could be done to live life to the full. No wonder why the Greeks were so keen on sports, festivities, politics, philosophy, geometry, astronomy, architecture, etc.
The Judeo-Christian tradition preconizes God created us all, that we are the ones to rule over any other creature, that we are special to His eyes. It also defends the curbing of any excesses in this life and the glorification of the afterlife when all the goods done will be rewarded. Because of that, we have turned our backs to the present moment. The unforeseen and undesirable side effect was that we have become incredibly individualistic and vain. We are so worried about our own salvation, going to churches, praying in the silence of our bedrooms, waiting for Judgement Day, etc that we have forgotten to live life to the full and make the difference AT THE PRESENT MOMENT. SEIZING THE DAY has acquired an almost profane, sinful meaning nowadays, usually connected to physical and sensual pleasure.
I for one think we should all live like the Greeks did. Let’s seize the day and the opportunities to make our lives worth living and this world a better place. We should achieve the understanding that we are just human beings without the sympathy of God (or the gods) with a mission in our hands: ENJOY LIFE AND OUR EPHEMERAL EXISTENCE.
Eliad, M. Histoire des croyances et des idées religieuses – volume I. 1976. Zahar