The Gods of Olympus

A History

Barbara Graziosi

Metropolitan Books

1

At Home in Greece

Tall, broad, and covered in snow for much of the year, Mount Olympus stands alone, fully visible from every side. It dominates the landscape for miles; its dazzling peaks seem particularly incongruous when viewed from the hot, low plains around. From the sea, the mountain sometimes looks like a cloud.

In antiquity, Mount Olympus lay very much off the beaten track. People had little reason to go near it, and no incentive at all to climb it, but they could see it—and in turn they felt observed. The Greeks thought that the gods lived among the mountain’s peaks and watched what happened down below. Poets elaborated on this notion. Homer described Mount Olympus precisely, mentioning its “many summits,” “abundant snow,” and “steepness” and giving an indication of just where it was. At the same time, he suggested that this mythical residence of the gods was not quite what it seemed: “Olympus is never shaken by winds, hit by rain, or covered in snow; cloudless ether spreads around it, and a bright aura encircles it.”1 So Olympus was both a particular landmark and a place of the mind. Greek communities could see the mountain, agree about its sacredness, and feel united by a shared sense of landscape; but they were also reminded that the gods did not live in our world and were never subjected to the indignities of bad weather.

It is unclear when the mountain first became associated with the gods. In the poems of Homer, the most important deities are explicitly called “the Olympians,” but he was not necessarily the first to place them on the sacred mountain. The Iliad and the Odyssey, in the form in which we have them, date to the archaic period (roughly the eighth to the sixth century BC), and the Greek peninsula was settled long before that time. We can reconstruct, on linguistic grounds, that the Greeks were descended from speakers of a language also related to Sanskrit and Latin as well as to Germanic, Slavic, and other linguistic groups, and which is conventionally called “Indo-European.” Migrating from central Asia, Indo-European speakers gradually settled in Europe and introduced broadly shared notions of the gods. So, for example, the Greek Zeus is related to the Sanskrit Dyáus Pitar: they are both versions of the same supreme god, ruler of the sky. It is unsurprising that in Greece, this Indo-European god settled on Mount Olympus, the tallest landmark in the area. It is more difficult to establish just when this happened. Answering that question requires dating the Indo-European migrations and investigating the roots of Homeric epic—both of which are controversial subjects.

Impressive civilizations were already flourishing in Greece around 2000 BC, more than a thousand years before Homer’s time. Monumental remains at Mycenae, Tiryns, and Pylos testify to this. In the twelfth century BC, however, these civilizations suddenly collapsed. A long period of decline followed, generally known as the Greek “Dark Ages.” It was only in the eighth century BC that people living in Greece began to flourish again. The next two centuries were characterized by a sharp increase in the population, the rise of the city-state (polis), the construction of the first temples and cult statues of the gods, an upsurge in travel and trade, the foundation of new colonies, the reintroduction of writing (a technology that had been lost during the Dark Ages), and the phenomenal spread of epic poetry. Scholars used to think that the Dark Ages corresponded with the arrival of Indo-European tribes from Asia. The impressive archaeological remains at Mycenae and elsewhere were thought to predate that migration, and therefore have nothing to do with Zeus and the rest of the Indo-European pantheon. The many written tablets found at the Mycenaean sites were assumed to record a language unrelated to Greek, perhaps an early form of Etruscan. This theory crumbled spectacularly in the 1950s, when Michael Ventris and John Chadwick (who had worked as a code breaker during World War II) managed to decipher Linear B, the script of the Mycenaean tablets. To widespread amazement, they proved that the tablets actually recorded an early form of Greek.2 This made it clear that Indo-European people had been living in Greece long before the Dark Ages and suggested that they worshipped essentially the same gods as later Greek communities, even though they did not have temples housing cult statues. Archaeologists had obviously misdated the Indo-European migration on the basis of the material record. This dramatic realization gave classicists hope of finding some snippets of Greek poetry among the Linear B tablets, perhaps early versions of Homeric epic describing the Olympian pantheon. In fact, they discovered nothing of the kind: as far as we can tell, Linear B was used exclusively for matter-of-fact lists and inventories. Mount Olympus never featured, nor did any stories about divine doings. Still, by recording sacrifices and other offerings to particular gods, even the dry documents of Mycenaean bureaucracy did reveal some surprising facts.

Tablets from Pylos and Crete indicate, for instance, that Dionysos was already known in the second millennium BC. Homer barely mentioned him, and later Greek texts presented him as a newcomer to Greece, a recent import from the decadent East—but this was evidently not so. We now know that Dionysos was always considered a “new” and subversive god in need of recognition, no matter how long he had actually been worshipped in Greece.3 His youth and exoticism are a matter of personality rather than historical age. Homer must have kept Dionysos out of Olympus not because he barely knew this god, as was once supposed, but because he was all too aware of his characteristics: Dionysos would have spoiled the party on Olympus with his drunken excesses. Linear B tablets produced other surprises, too. The god Apollo, for example, was apparently unknown to the Mycenaeans. This “most Greek of the gods,” as a famous Hellenist called him, this paragon of beauty and measure, was in fact a rather late addition to the Greek pantheon, had no obvious Indo-European credentials, and was at least partly Semitic in influence, identified early on with the Canaanite god Resheph.4

There were, then, some differences between Mycenaean portrayals of the gods and their later appearance in archaic Greece—but there were also some definite connections and some suggestive echoes of old Mycenaean rituals in Homeric poetry. In the Odyssey, for instance, Poseidon receives special worship at Pylos in the Peloponnese, and that is precisely where most of the Linear B tablets concerning his cult have been found. Likewise, Hera is called “ox-eyed” in Homer, and Linear B tablets reveal that she had received rich cattle sacrifices from Mycenaean worshippers, richer even than those offered to Zeus. Perhaps early Greek speakers had looked right into the eyes of their sacrificial victims and seen in them a shadow of the goddess. Their impression was then passed on through the formulations of ritual and poetic language: ox-eyed Hera became a standard Homeric phrase. Beyond such poetic links, there was also an entirely solid aspect of continuity between the civilizations of the Bronze Age and archaic Greece: buildings. In the archaic period, people could still see the remnants of impressive fortifications at Mycenae, Pylos, and—most important—Troy, on the coast of Turkey, a city that had once been a Hittite protectorate. The Greeks wove stories around those ruins, imagining the great heroes who had once lived and died there. In the case of particularly impressive remains, such as the walls of Troy, it was even suggested that the gods themselves had built them.

One of the most remarkable features of archaic Greek poetry is how insistently, and precisely, it places its tales of gods and heroes in the Aegean landscape. It is as if, in the sudden explosion of travel and trade that characterized the archaic period, people wanted to exchange stories not only about their gods, but about landmarks, ruins, and sailing routes. Homer described the whole eastern Aegean, mentioning hundreds of place-names, in a massive Catalogue of Ships in the second book of the Iliad. Hesiod, in his Theogony, revealed how the gods were born and simultaneously placed them on a map. Zeus grew up in Crete, he said; Aphrodite came out of the waves near Cyprus. As well as listening to poems about divine travel, the Greeks were increasingly prepared to travel themselves in order to worship the gods. According to our ancient sources, the first Olympics took place in 776 BC. Athletes, dancers, poets, and musicians from many different Greek city-states gathered to compete against one another at the small village of Olympia, probably so named after the residence of Zeus. The games were put on precisely as a spectacle for Zeus, but they also attracted enthusiastic human crowds. At roughly the same time, the Delphic oracle opened for business, delivering Apollo’s prophecies to all who made the journey to it. Soon, Delphi also started to host competitions in athletics and poetry, in order to make sure that Apollo did not miss out on the celebrations his father enjoyed elsewhere. Crisscrossing the Aegean in poetry and sailing ships alike, the Greeks took possession of the landscape and placed their gods in it.

The Homeric Hymn to Apollo, a beautiful archaic poem telling the story of Leto’s search for a place to give birth, illustrates the process. After nine days of travel and labor, Leto finally delivers Artemis and Apollo on the barren island of Delos, holding on to a palm tree. A sanctuary is built near the sacred palm, and worshippers begin to visit the island, bringing their offerings and gifts. Rewarded for its kindness to the pregnant goddess, Delos becomes rich, despite its rocky soil. The island also sets a pattern for the cult of Apollo: when the god grows up, the Hymn continues, he travels to another daunting place, “a cliff hanging below Mount Parnassos, and a rugged glade below.” There, at Delphi, Apollo defeats a snakelike monster called Python and decides to build a second temple for himself, where he will deliver oracles to inquiring mortals.

The poem tells us that Apollo needs priests for his inhospitable sanctuary at Delphi and, while considering the problem, “becomes aware of a swift ship on the wine-dark sea,” sailing hundreds of miles away between Knossos and Pylos. Deciding to turn the Cretan crew into his priests, he transforms himself into a dolphin and leaps into the ship, rocking it fearfully as the Cretan sailors struggle in vain to catch him and throw him overboard. Terrified, they sail past Pylos, their destination, and farther north until the wind bends their course eastward, into the Gulf of Corinth, and they are finally stranded at Krisa, near modern Itea. There Apollo suddenly reveals himself in a shower of sparks. He tells the Cretan sailors that they must abandon their trade, climb the mountain looming above the coast, and tend to his newly founded sanctuary. They will make a good living, he adds, despite their unlikely location, because pilgrims will provide a constant supply of gifts.

It seems that the actual priests who worked at the sanctuary in Delphi really did claim Cretan descent and explained their life hundreds of miles from their ancestral home by telling the story of Apollo the dolphin. Strange as their tale may seem, it captured the spirit of the age. Everybody was on the move in the archaic period. Trade flourished, new cities were founded, and communal worship became part of a quickly expanding economy. The Homeric Hymn to Apollo mentions scores of place-names when describing the journeys of the Cretan sailors, Apollo, and his mother, Leto, thus offering a virtual tour of the ancient Greek world (see map on p. 23). Modern readers struggle to locate all the ancient toponyms and can easily get bored; but archaic Greek audiences must have been thrilled, for they recognized their own hometowns and landscapes and realized that they all played a role in the biography of the god. It was through such stories that Greek speakers began to realize that they belonged together and inhabited the same world. In the fifth century BC, Herodotus claimed that Greekness was a matter of “common blood and language, shared temples of the gods, rituals, and common habits.”5 Panhellenic centers of cult like Delphi and Olympia were of cardinal importance precisely because they helped to establish the “common habits” of the Greeks.

For modern tourists, visiting Delphi remains one of the most effective ways of experiencing that ancient sense of Greekness, that early connection between place, poetry, and religion. It is best to approach the sanctuary from the sea—as Apollo and his priests did, according to the Hymn, and as ancient worshippers arrived in real life. From the coast near Itea, the ancient sanctuary looks like a tiny white speck of marble against the dark cliffs of Mount Parnassos. The ascent is sharp and difficult, but those who follow the country road as it snakes up the mountain are amply rewarded. Up in Delphi, the view is spectacular and the air bracing, crystal-clear; just to be there is a spiritual experience, even today. To the south there are open views of blue mountains and a wide-open valley filled with a sea of silvery olive trees. Beyond them, the actual sea glitters, bright blue, in the distance. When one turns north, the outlook changes sharply: up close a sheer rock face looms over visitors, and beyond it rise the twin peaks of Mount Parnassos. The cliffs and crags seem impenetrable, but right there is where the Hiera Hodos starts, the ancient Sacred Way that leads through the sanctuary of Apollo up to the temple where his oracles were delivered.

The sanctuary complex is built on narrow terraces cut into the steep mountainside, exploiting the small space to the full. Inside the sanctuary, the Sacred Way climbs upward, making two hairpin bends. The remains of elaborate buildings crowd it on both sides, so that visitors are constantly confronted with unexpected sights. This must have been even more true in ancient times, when intact structures would have impeded an overview of the sanctuary. Clustered around the entrance were once many life-size statues raised on pedestals, commemorating assorted wars between Greek city-states—Tegea’s victory over Sparta, for example, and Sparta’s victory over Athens. A few statues also celebrated peaceful activities: the people of Corfu, for instance, set up a large bronze bull in thanksgiving for an extraordinary catch of tuna. After the statues, a little higher up, the Sacred Way was flanked by small, room-size shrines, or “treasuries,” built by individual city-states to house their votive offerings to Apollo. There were once thirty or more treasuries, and judging from those best preserved, they were exquisite. The Athenians built theirs on one of the best plots, a small triangular terrace just after the first sharp turn. It stood at an angle from the road, showing off both side and front to everyone as they went up and presenting a dramatic sight to those descending as well. The treasury was built entirely of Parian marble and had a beautiful frieze running all around it. The Athenians were probably trying to outdo the intricate treasury built just down the road by the people of Siphnos, but it is not clear that they succeeded. The Siphnian shrine, with its two beautiful sculpted women holding up the roof as if they were columns, is hard to surpass. The treasuries exemplified the competitive stance of ancient Greek city-states but also revealed a sense of common purpose, showing that all cities and communities paid homage to Apollo. It made sense for the Greek city-states to lavish on their treasuries at Delphi the best craftsmanship and materials they could afford, since the buildings advertised their piety, wealth, and achievements to the many pilgrims and diplomats who traveled to Apollo’s oracle from all over the Greek world—and indeed from even farther afield.6 As visitors climbed the Sacred Way toward the temple of Apollo, they essentially walked past a small-scale version of Greece, city-state by city-state. The experience of modern tourists is, in that respect at least, not so different: a visit to Delphi, with its treasuries huddled together in one place, still offers a privileged overview of the ancient Greek world.

After the second sharp bend, the Sacred Way leads to the main temple, on the facade of which was carved a scene of Apollo’s first arrival at Delphi. The image recalled the story told in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo and mirrored the pilgrims’ own travel to the sanctuary: Apollo’s journey was the same as those of his priests and worshippers. It was at the temple, at this point of convergence and arrival, that momentous conversations took place. Apollo, through the utterings of the Pythia, his venerable priestess, answered questions put to him by his visitors. Pilgrims made inquiries about the things that most mattered to them, from issues of paternity and infertility (which seem to have been especially frequent) to the outcome of wars and the possibility of settling new lands. The Pythia offered authoritative but rather obscure answers, and several other priests were then at hand to interpret her utterings for a fee. Pilgrims often continued to ponder Apollo’s responses, and consult further experts, back home. After that long process of consultation and interpretation, Apollo’s revelations usually crystallized into lines of hexameter poetry and were always found to be true—even if the correct interpretation sometimes emerged only after the relevant events had come to pass.

The proceedings at Delphi might seem baffling from a modern perspective: it is hard to see why the Greeks took such pains to travel across the sea and up a mountain in order to get some sort of mystifying, unclear response. But I suspect that visiting Delphi may really have offered concrete help, in at least two ways. First of all, because the oracle was open for consultation only for a brief period in summer (Apollo was thought to spend the rest of the year in the far north of Europe), those who wanted to interrogate the god generally had to wait. Crucially, the process slowed things down and gave people time to consider their decisions. Taking time over important questions must have helped, no matter what the Pythia actually said. A visit to Delphi also encouraged people to put their own troubles into perspective. As they walked up the Sacred Way, past all the votive offerings and treasuries, they must have realized that many other people, from many different parts of the world, had also asked Apollo for help in the same way. When visitors reached the temple, an inscription advised them: “Know Yourself.” They were invited to reflect on the difference between themselves and the god Apollo but were also forced to consider how they were similar to all other ordinary mortals who had been confronted with that injunction. A consultation at Delphi offered the advantages of time and perspective and suggested to all Greeks that they belonged together.

It was at Panhellenic centers of cult like Delphi that the personalities of the gods became embedded in the collective memory of the Greeks. Visitors were told the same stories, heard the same poems, saw the same sculptures, and underwent the same experiences at Delphi; so they began to feel the same way about Apollo. Likewise, at Olympia, visitors from many different city-states saw the same games in honor of Zeus and felt the god observing them as they gathered and competed in that particular place of worship. In the archaic period, Greek mythology developed as a form of entertainment, for both gods and mortals, at religious gatherings. It was highly imaginative, but it was also rooted in a very real landscape—a landscape dominated by Mount Olympus and its gods.


Copyright © 2014 by Barbara Graziosi