What the Ancients Knew

In addition to my doctoral studies, I write about the Washington Capitals for a local sports blog. In response to some of the histrionic responses and rationalizations after Monday night’s overtime loss, I wrote this post as a bit of long perspective. Most of the following research was conducted in graduate seminars at the University of Maryland. Yes, this is a post about a hockey game.

The ancient Greeks famously made their gods into humans, and their humans into gods.

After death, heroes like Theseus, Odysseus, and Jason were deified, honored with memorials and hero cults. After death, they possessed the ability to enact positive effect – in a limited geographic range – to those who honored them (or negative to those who did not) through ritual tribute and sacrifice.

Gods were divine beings who possessed even great power than heroes and who were also venerated, out of fear more than respect. Gods were capricious, unpredictable. We’re familiar with the Olympians, but emotions, primordial elements, and even physical locations were governed by gods as well.

Marble sculpture of Tyche, wearing a crown shaped like city walls. This Tyche was meant to bring luck to a specific city. Image from Flickr user mharrsch (http://www.flickr.com/photos/mharrsch/)

Eris, Eros, Hypnos, Thanatos. Strife, love, sleep, death. Helios, the sun. Selene, the moon.

Tyche, daughter of Hermes and Aphrodite (you probably remember her, right?), was a favorite goddess of cities and other institutions. She’s the goddess and personification of luck.

Implicit in this type of mythological system is the search for the answer to a fundamental question: Why do bad things happen to us?

Not “why do bad things happen to good people,” although morality at times became a factor. Why do bad things happen to us?

(And how do we define “us”, anyway? That’s a subject for another day.)

Happen to us. Passive voice. The bane of freshman English comp students. Passive voice is weakness, a lack of agency. When you make something happen, you control it. When something happens to you, you have no control.

The gods became a coping method as the ancient Greeks realized how much of the world around them was out of their control. Mount Etna erupting? The titan Typhon trapped underneath it, struggling to break free. Harsh storms at sea? Poseidon raging against a lack of tribute, the misdeeds of someone on the ship, or perhaps he was fighting another god and the fleet is caught in the crossfire. Now there is agency. There is a reason. You can still believe in an order to the universe.

Sure, it’s not that much solace when your friends are dead or your ship is sinking, but at least you know why. Even the things that are completely out of your control still have an underlying reason, a structure, and that brings small comfort. More so if you, in some small way, had (or could have had) control over the event through prayer, offerings, or actions.

Another aspect of Greek religious practice was the scapegoat, though in that part of the Mediterranean the unfortunate being was a human. This person, the pharmakos, was a marginalized member of society – slave, beggar, disfigured – who was expelled from the community. The pharmakos could be deemed necessary when a disaster befell the community, or as part of regular ritual practice.

Much like the Biblical scapegoat, most pharmakoi weren’t actually killed as part of the ritual, though they were beaten and derided before being driven from the gates. The act of expelling a pharmakos or scapegoat is a rite of purification. Whether in response to calamity or as a regular matter of course, the pharmakos carried all the sins and negative baggage of the community, purifying that community to allow it to prosper in his or her (usually his) absence.

Identifying and expelling the pharmakos, the scapegoat, was an act of agency by the community. It didn’t necessarily allow them to regain control over their own fate, but at the least it was a reset button. It was an act of catharsis as well.

Small consolation to that man wandering the rocky Greek countryside. Small consolation to the one individual given responsibility for the ills of the entire community. The scapegoat has no say in his selection.

Prayers to the gods. Tributes offered to local heroes. Rituals. Scapegoats. Reactions of a community to events happening to them, beyond their control, that seemingly make no sense.

Nature abhors a vacuum, especially when it comes to meaning.

Funny how some things never change.


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