Why did we give up on the old, grumpy, whimsical, brutal gods of old, with their adulterous, murderous, gentle, poetic ways? In Quebec City, I’ve been looking into the faces of Poseidon, Aphrodite, Dionysius, all culled from the great Greco-Roman collections of Berlin and now given a year of life at the Musée de la Civilisation “Masters of Olympus” exhibition on the banks of the Saint Lawrence. Cold marble is thus shielded from the still near-freezing waters by air-conditioning, statues and busts that were carved in Greece and the Middle East, and which must now be preserved from our environment. Once these figures stood in watered gardens near the Mediterranean, sometimes buried by a volcano in Pompeii or an earthquake in Roman Berytus (Beirut).
Hesiod and Homer were their poets, the first allegedly murdered for a rape he did not commit, the second perhaps non-existent – scholars are able to kill off the author of The Iliad with a mere mention of “recital” authorship in an age before written texts – but the Greeks believed in them. And don’t the busts of these great wordsmiths prove that they lived? Just as Zeus and Poseidon and Artemis and Apollo lived?
And if polytheism was born of Chaos, surely monotheism is about dictatorship. Zeus was, in his way, a bit human. Go to Quebec or Berlin and take a look. Christianity, too, at first. God Made Man, perhaps, if you were a Christian. Judaism was stricter. The Islamic God may not be a jealous God, but Islam is about submission. The one God of all three monotheistic religions expects obedience. There is only One True God. He is a just, lonely God. No wonder our human dictators hated this monotheistic chap, although Stalin was slightly less intolerant of Jesus – a working class lad, a carpenter’s son – than he was of the bourgeois merchant Mohamed.
But there is something rather intrusive about prying into the private lives of gods who did indeed look a bit like us, albeit in a frightening way. Take the vast marble foot of a colossal statue from 100BC Egypt. It belongs to a god, of course, but it’s a bit chilling to learn that only the feet, hands and heads of these giants were in marble. Most were simply attached to a wooden torso. God made Wood.
Beards were important to the male gods – and beards are important, aren’t they, to rather a lot of present-day prelates and God-followers? It’s almost a relief to come across an Asia Minor Triton of 150BC who appears to have submitted himself to a real haircut. Aphrodite, bringer-back of faithless husbands, modestly covers her naked left breast with her right hand, but wearing her hair up and back like any lady of the Greek aristocracy. Take away the actors’ masks and these folk do appear to be what Greeks actually looked like. But in a world without technology, how did the sculptors achieve this remarkable craftsmanship – a question even museum experts cannot answer – which includes figures only 150mm high?
And the transition from polytheism to monotheism? I suspect it was not that painful. The Kaaba, now the most sacred location in Islam, once contained 360 deities and was dedicated to a Nabatean god. Christians followed pagan traditions and built on polytheistic altars. I was struck a few weeks ago, in the Syrian town of Yabroud, to see the base of Roman pillars of an ancient temple/church – erected in an age when their constructors still believed in their very own household gods. These were deities who laid down no rules. The gods spent much of their time attacking and abusing each other inspiring myth and ritual and art. You could see why the early Roman emperors thought these gods and goddesses were safe, court jesters rather than an all-powerful God which might hold them to account.
Followers of an Islamist militia had destroyed the faces of Christian saints in the Yabroud church – too many graven images for them. Not that we “moderns” are that much more enlightened. Remember Henry VIII and Cromwell. The Quebec exhibition even includes a 500BC Greek bowl depicting a Dionysian feast in which the stick figures have had their phalluses – “vulgar details”, as the Canadian caption rather primly remarks – removed in the 1800s.
Greek gods, which became Roman gods, offered protection in a friendly, racy way. They reflected ourselves, I suspect, with all the characteristic flaws and obsessions we understand today. Revenge, adultery, betrayal, murder. They were us! They were ritualised in stage plays which still exist in our modern theatres. That’s why, at school, I wrote a third-rate poem called Penates (“household gods” in the Roman world) in which the “god” was a black-and-white television set which, in those days, only began life at 6pm.
Today, I guess the laptop and iPhone are our penates, the SMS a kind of ritual play, our greater gods being Amnesty International, the Geneva Conventions and – with certain reservations – the United Nations. The latter provide a reflection of our universal need for human protection, an example of our moral impoverishment. But, like Google, they have no artistic merit. And most will betray us. So to whom should we turn? Read Appollonius or Virgil and Ovid or the King James version of the Bible or the Koran (Tarif Khalidi translation)? Read the lot, I say, and judge for yourself.