Was Xenophanes a proto-monotheist?

This topic seems to have been in discussion lately and John Beckett published on it a few days since. I think it is a part of a larger topic of huge importance about early Greek philosophy (of the religious or secular form or indeed a mixture of both). I will stick to the man and also touch on the movement. Now, we have many fragments about Xenophanes, as well as a historical period to which he was contemporary, that allow us to form a clear view of the man’s ideas and let me add, motives. We know that he lived after Homer and Hesiod, and was very bold to criticize them: “Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods all things that are a shame and a disgrace among mortals, stealings and adulteries and deceivings of one another.” Xenophanes belonged to a movement, anticipated a little by Hesiod, which criticized the old ideas and traditions (including mythology and anthropomorphism) while searching for a universal “Truth”. What surprises me is that Xenophanes doesn’t try to allow Homer and Hesiod much credit, or attempt at least (using the very “critical thinking” he seemingly wishes to distinguish himself by) to allegorize some myths and their import. Nor is there any constructive criticism; Xenophanes boldly attacks his renowned predecessors (somewhat like his contemporary and  Heraclitus, who said “Homer should be turned out of the lists and whipped”) and without much reason. First of all, Homer and Hesiod were widely acclaimed throughout Greece, and deservedly so, because they wrote beautifully and wisely, including about the Gods. Very few doubted that they did anything wrong, either artistically or theologically, and if objections were raised, reverence was most likely shown. Secondly, Xenophanes’ movement owed part of its existence to some of Hesiod’s new ideas which were in opposition to Homer’s. Greece had already begun to change and it seems Xenophanes was a thorough individualist who sought to have his own ideas spread, in order to “reform” a Greece that had been “corrupted” in its religious thinking. We know from another fragment that he travelled throughout Greece for 67 years, most probably for that purpose. His main concern was anthropomorphism, which we can infer from three fragments on the topic:

“But mortals deem that the gods are begotten as they are, and have clothes like theirs, and voice and form.”

“Yes, and if oxen and horses or lions had hands, and could paint with their hands, and produce works of art as men do, horses would paint the forms of the gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and make their bodies in the image of their several kinds.”*

“The Ethiopians make their gods black and snub-nosed; the Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair.”

One cannot be exactly certain where this new idea against anthropomorphism first arose and why**, but it was undoubtedly damaging to polytheism in the long run. The traditional view of mythology and cultic practice was that the Gods were represented in a form similar to the people who worshipped them. This has universally been done throughout all polytheistic cultures. Indeed, it’s an obvious and necessary thing for ritual practice that wouldn’t have been questioned in the first place by someone who cared about ancestral and cultic continuity as well as the sanctity of religious tradition, rather than an individual opinion. That Xenophanes objected to such a common and strongly established cultural/theological/mythological norm inevitably gives the impression that he was either unduly confused or ambitious. It’s not wrong to suspect someone who objects to what everyone else does in an environment that was entirely original, that is to say, where there wasn’t anything previously lost in order to be restored (which we polytheists are doing today). Instead of enjoying his travels by expanding his knowledge of the distinctions in regional Greek practice, he sought to teach everyone how they were mistaken and needed improvement. In one fragment, he says “The Gods have not revealed all things to men from the beginning, but by seeking they find in time what is better.” Well, how could Xenophanes be so sure he was “better” and everyone else was less so in regard to this point of anthropomorphism? Apparently he wasn’t better by his own admission, as we can see from another fragment:

“There never was nor will be a man who has certain knowledge about the Gods and about all the things I speak of. Even if he should chance to say the complete truth, yet he himself knows not that it is so. But all may have their fancy.”

I must say I commend the frankness of Xenophanes here, because unlike so many other philosophers, he conceded that the “Truth” in a universal sense was really unattainable. One ought to acknowledge that he was honest about the reality of where intellectual universalism always ends, i.e. uncertainty. Each culture has its own ideas and traditions, and therefore it would be impossible, not to mention unfair, to attempt to bring them all under one system, especially an arbitrary one derived from individual conception. This is why we have pluralism inherent in polytheism; just as there are many Gods, there are many traditions, and just as the Gods are venerated, the traditions should also be respected. The essence of polytheism is far more continuity of ancestral practice rather than refining conceptions about the divine in a universal manner. Xenophanes contradicts himself and undermines his validity when he simultaneously attacks Hesiod, Homer, as well as anthropomorphism, and in effect doubts what he is saying. This makes Xenophanes somewhat of a skeptic. But now let us move to the more relevant question of proto-monotheism. Xenophanes was far removed from the time of Akhenaten, an undisputed monotheist or proto-monotheist, depending on interpretation. Yet he was part of a new movement in Greece, originating in Ionia, the same region where the first philosophy of Thales and his Milesian school developed. It was a prosperous, commercial region where commodities and ideas were exchanged among Eastern Mediterranean cultures and somewhat beyond. Thales, like Xenophanes’ contemporary Pythagoras, is known to have travelled abroad. In encountering various cultures and their differences, he must have had the negative reaction of doubting his own beliefs because of plurality rather than the positive reaction of admiring that very plurality. From this doubt, which Xenophanes shared also from extensive travels (albeit Hellenic) he sought a greater “Truth” that explained this new, large world he experienced. Everything, he must have thought, was related and had a common origin, and therefore it was only prolonged isolation and merely popular tradition that led to differences, which “covered” this primal “Truth”, which was equated to natural elements. This anticipates the rise of monotheism (one could also say deism) in its second form, i.e. the intellectual form that differed from the earlier quasi-political & imperialistic form under Akhenaten**. Xenophanes gives a strong impression of this proto-monotheism, when he states the following in several fragments:

“One God, the greatest among Gods and men, neither in form like unto mortals nor in thought . . . .”

“He sees all over, thinks all over, and hears all over.

“But without toil he swayeth all things by the thought of his mind.”

“And he abideth ever in the selfsame place, moving not at all; nor doth it befit him to go about now hither now thither.”

Now this is not monotheism, but only an earlier anticipatory form of it. Xenophanes is still a “polytheist” but he is also making a transition unto something else. The phrase “One God, the greatest among Gods and men”, looks like ambiguous evidence, but it is the first term ‘One God’ that really holds almost all the weight, especially if we also consider the three latter fragments. Some philosophers, like the Orphics contemporary to them, accorded to the ruling God (in this case Zeus, but sometimes they held the God to be a natural element) greater powers than ever before, and although they did acknowledge other Gods, the status of those Gods now dwindled in the rising supremacy of the Head. The “Mind” was now absolutely supreme and pure in the order of things, and intellect, not ritual or prayer or festivals, was the way to reach it. As M.L. West explains in an article from the book Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity:

“Empedocles describes a God who does not have human form—no head, no arms, no feet, no knees, no hairy genitals—but consists simply of a marvelous holy mind, darting across the whole universe with its swift thoughts. This may remind us of Xenophanes’ and Heraclitus’ accounts of a disembodied intelligence; but they were speaking of a unique being, whereas Empedocles‘ description may have been applicable to any of the life-long Gods…The philosopher who first gives us a clear statement of the role of the controlling Mind in the material universe is Anaxagoras, who is a little older than Empedocles. Like Heraclitus [and most probably his contemporary Xenophanes also–my note], he emphasizes that Mind or Intellect is something separate from everything else. He says it is unlimited, unalloyed, homogeneous, eternal, autonomous, the finest and purest of all substances, with knowledge of everything and the greatest power, governing all living beings, and responsible for initiating the rotation of the cosmos, which led to the separation of all things from the original mixture and continues to be productive in the same way…Here we have a single power, uniquely responsible for shaping the world we know. There is no mention of other Gods. We might say that here at last is a clear case of a monotheistic system, except that it is difficult to justify treating Anaxagoras’ Nous [the Mind] as divine…Nevertheless, theistic or not, his system interestingly illustrates the tendency to look for a single, intelligent governing power in the world”.

Michael Frede adds the following in his article from the same book, when he speaks of the continued developments of Aristotle to the concept of the “one God” above:

“Given that it is clear that there is a substantial sense in which Aristotle believes in one God, though there are many other things he is prepared to call ‘divine’, let us consider these…It is part of the order of the universe which depends on the first unmoved mover [Nous/the Mind] that there be immaterial substances, pure unembodied minds who, being immortal, enjoy eternal bliss contemplating the first unmoved mover and the order which depends on him…[As for Plato’s position in Timaeus] So there is one God, but there are also other beings which are called ‘divine’, though they are created, because they are by Divine grace immortal and enjoy a good life. But they only exist as part of God’s creation and they are immortal and hence divine only due to God’s benevolence or grace, that is to say they owe their very divinity to God. So far, then, the Platonist account, in its essential features, is very much like that of Aristotle and that of the Stoics.”

What we see here is proto-monotheism through and through, where the status of the other Gods is reduced subserviently (one may say blasphemously) to that of “angels”, dwarfish beings in comparison with the absolute, supreme God. There are those who may object (and perhaps even quibble) in the defense of Xenophanes or others, by stating that this was merely another form of polytheism and not proto-monotheism at all. Such an objection is rather inane, because if that kind of reasoning is used, Christianity itself becomes a form of polytheism too, except for the thin partition of intolerance that divides them apart. This fluidity was actually present in Late Antiquity, when all what differed between a Neoplatonist and a Christian was really not so much the point of whether there is one or many Gods, but whether Jesus was the savior and intercessor. The Christian author Augustine points this out in The City of God:

“If the Platonists prefer to call these ‘gods’ [lower case ‘g’ for emphasizing lower status] rather than ‘daemons’ and to count them among those of whom their founder and master Plato writes that they are Gods created by the highest God, let them say what they wish. For one should not engage with them in a controversy of words. For if they say that they are not blessed by themselves, but by being attached to him who has created them, then they say precisely what we say, whichever word they may use for them”

For fear of falling into this trap of quibbling where evidence is otherwise strong, I must therefore state in conclusion that Xenophanes is certainly a polytheist, but at the same time he is undoubtedly a proto-monotheist or a proto-deist or both, depending on your interpretation.



*It’s easy to detect a satirical, overbearing tone here, and one that does our friend Xenophanes no credit at all, but rather weakens his case.

**Akhenaten’s defacing and prohibiting of divine images is known, but no connection has been established with Greece. Nevertheless, we know the Greek minds whose new ideas paved the way against anthropomorphism, i.e. Thales, the first philosopher who equated Gods with elements, and who was followed later widely by fellow philosophers. Even earlier than Thales, a problem with anthropomorphism was already anticipated from the Theogony of Hesiod, wherein he shows that traditional, anthropomorphic Gods that were worshipped, were preceded by earlier generations of non-anthropomorphic and non-cultic Gods, and in a few cases, allegorical Gods that represented the forces of nature. See Hack’s article on Hesiod in his work God in Greek philosophy.

***The two forms were later to combine very destructively under the Emperor Constantine and again under Mohammed.

9 thoughts on “Was Xenophanes a proto-monotheist?

  1. Euphonia from the River

    Philosophy is ultimately a degradation of knowledge. Ancestral tradition is not preserved and can even be lost while men make grand claims as to the nature of the universe while simultaneously saying no one can really know anything, including them. I’ve seen this distinction of god/Gods before. The lower g gods are considered similar to a tulpa created by human ideas and energy while Gods are eternal do not rely on humans as a power source. The popular book and show “American Gods” goes on a similar idea but does not include eternal Gods, only “gods” created by human concepts (like a tulpa).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      Well said! Philosophy is ultimately a degradation of knowledge because it takes knowledge out of its stable place (culture) and falsely raises it so high and so ambitiously until it crumbles down–but even then philosophers deny that it belongs in culture! I say down with philosophy and its sibling “science”.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. K

    I am probably responsible for the quibbling about what is and is not monotheism. Anyway, I would agree that Xenophanes was a significant push toward monotheism. He made jabs at statues and pictures, as well as at ritual. He told Egyptians mourning Osiris not to mourn him if he is a god, or else cease considering him a god. This displayed a lack of understanding about the ritual and the myth it reenacted. Or maybe Xenpohanes didn’t care even if he knew. It was part of the idea that the gods cannot be involved in any kind of misfortune. Osiris can’t die and be mourned, because being a god precludes all those things, that would be the logic. Nevermind the thousands of years of Egyptian religion and the meaning behind the rituals and symbols, Xenophanes knew better.

    As for his comment on depicting the gods, that meaning did this comment actually have? First of all, people had been depicting the gods in animal form(or as theriomorphic hybrids) for a very long time. The Greek myths are full of gods(and others) turning into animals or associated with some animal. The same animal patterns found in other Indo-European successor cultures and in the Near East and in Egypt recurred in Greece. I would have quipped back at Xenophanes that we don’t need lions, horses, or oxen to make depictions of the gods in their image when we humans already do that. Even if the gods are not human in form(who knows?), they can appear in human form to relate to us. No mortal could depict the “true form” of a deity according to most stories I know. Everything from going blind to being instantly vaporized have been listed as outcomes of a god manifesting fully to a mortal.

    I plan on something about Homer and Hesiod, but I don’t feel like it yet. And some other things about the Greeks. Here is a moral issue for you. You come home one day to find that one of your hired men was killed by the thrall of another landowner. You try to get them to pay compensation, but the other party refuses to pay anything. Others of your household, your family and your men, begin to say that you are showing weakness in not looking after your own. Finally, that other landowner publicly insults you at a local meeting. What do you do in response? And what would you think someone like Xenophanes or some other philosopher might say about this?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      The incident with the Egyptians was unknown to me, but it doesn’t surprise me Xenophanes would have behaved in that manner. He subscribed to the idea that the Gods were totally perfect and elevated in spirit and mind, and therefore resembled people in no way. There’s dualism for you.

      Your response to Xenophanes’ silly objection to anthropomorphism is excellent. One thing I have noticed with philosophers, theologians and other ambitious “reformers” is that they rely on a multitude of words and some simple logic along with occasional wit to make their point. This is the same method used by tyrants and democratizing politicians. Then there are those who are universalizing and far more ambitious; they use complexity to no avail.

      The moral question you raise is interesting, although there’s no universal answer to it. It is quite possible what you describe will in most cases lead to fighting and perhaps bloodshed, unless it takes place in an urban area where the state’s law has enough power & trust to prevent it. Xenophanes would object to fighting and probably resort to the law or even forgiveness. I recall a fragment of Heraclitus (a contemporary) wherein he ridicules the notion of revenge as purification, comparing (again with that silly kind of dismissive wit) the washing away of blood by blood to the washing away of mud by mud. Xenophanes would have regarded revenge in the same manner.


  3. K

    “Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods all things that are a shame and a disgrace among mortals, stealings and adulteries and deceivings of one another.”

    I have read a defense of Homer made by Heraclitus(not the older one) that tackled some specific objections. He spends a great deal of it bashing Plato. His way of addressing the objections was mostly via allegory, though. He thought Homer encoded all sorts of things into his poems. What is interesting is that he preserved a long list of objections made by detractors of Homer.

    Section 42 is telling. It concerns Zeus sending a rain of blood out of sadness for Sarpedon’s death. Heraclitus goes out of his way to deny it has anything to do with Zeus being grieved. He connects it to miracles of bloody rain often taken as portents of great change or disaster. I am not certain how that helps, but what I wanted to point out is that Homer was attacked for representing Zeus as being able to feel grief at all. Grief is an affliction even in humans, Heraclitus admits. So naturally it cannot have anything to do with the gods, it would detract from their blessed and happy state.

    Section 69 is about the story of the affair of Ares and Aphrodite and how they were caught by Hephaestus as told in the Odyssey. Note that this was told by a bard in the hall of Alcinous as entertainment. According to Heraclitus, critics claimed that if the gods have adultery among themselves then human wrongdoers don’t need to be punished.

    Section 68 sees fit to deny any reference to Orion actually being loved by Eos as well, claiming it is an old euphemism for one who died young. Here we have to distance the gods from love, another emotion. Most objections listed are like this, they are about things the gods do among themselves. Very few concern relations between men and gods, or accuse the gods of injustice toward men.

    There is an exception however. The longest objection covered by Heraclitus concerns Apollo’s anger at the Greeks for Agamemnon not returning the daughter of Chryses. One objection listed is that it was unjust for Apollo to afflict the entire army and its animals over Agamemnon, who did not suffer any direct or immediate consequences personally. Seems unfair, considering that Agamemnon acted in an arrogant, heavy handed way. It is not just about that issue though, but also the anthropomorphism of Apollo being angry and shooting, even if it was obviously a plague being caused.

    I will add an example. Odin in the story of the Sacred Mead(or Mead of Poetry, Spirit Stirrer, Odoerrir) uses deception to take the mead from the jotun Suttung. Odin uses another name and appearance, calling himself Bolverk(Bale Worker, worker of misfortune or ill) to accomplish this. Baugi’s(brother of Suttung) workers to kill each other over a whetstone that Odin has, showing that they are quite stupid and greedy. Odin then offers to work for Baugi since he is suddenly short of help, in exchange for some of the Mead. Baugi would have to convince his brother to give Odin some of the Mead, of course. When the time comes, Suttung refuses even though Bolverk and Baugi ask him. So Odin comes up with a plan to steal the Mead, using Suttung’s daughter to do it. To reach where she is at guarding the mead, he has to tunnel in, and he turns into a snake to get through. Odin seduces her, and she agrees to give him a draught every night he spends with her. However, Odin’s draughts are big enough to drink up all the Mead. After the third night Odin turns into an eagle and flies away, pursued by Suttung. He regurgitates the Mead into containers in Asgard, while some falls to earth that anyone can use. In your opinion, was it wrong to use subterfuge to get it?

    Here is another question. Why would Homer, Hesiod, or anyone want to attribute things to the gods that are insulting, immoral, or demeaning? If the poets actually thought that to be immoral and blasphemous, I doubt they would have done it. Why didn’t anyone in the Archaic period stone Hesiod or Homer to death for sacrilege? Again, in the Odyssey the Phaeacians don’t scream “blasphemy!” at the song of the bard about Ares and Aphrodite, they just have a good laugh. For that matter, the gods aren’t angry about it. They aren’t even angry at Diomedes and Patroclus for trying to fight them, or at Achilles for his outburst toward Apollo.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      Although Heraclitus the commentator does well to attack Plato and others who dismiss Homer abd Hesiod, he uses the same philosophical tools (allegory) to make his point. I don’t blame him for it, and I think he succeeds in proving that Homer is worth studying deeply, but I do believe allegorizing the Gods was neither was Homer meant nor a defence of his work as poetry. The chief problem in question here was the degree to which poetry can represent truth. Apparently the philosophers overlooked the truths in poetry, while aiming at what they believed was a greater “Truth”. They believed the pursuit of it justified attacking Homer and Hesiod, and even the whole traditional structure of religion. It was for this reason that their innovative ideas were condemned as impious. An Athenian seer by the name of Diopeithes about the time of the Peloponnesian War succeeded in passing a law that persecuted people for impiety if they “invented doctrines about the sky” and scholars understand this to allude to Xenophanes and his imitators like Protagoras and Pericles. But these “thinkers” did not relent and continued to question & innovate at their pleasure, playing their mental games in competition with one another. Homer & Hesiod were vastly wiser than they are, even without allegory. Why can’t we take myths as they are and value them as such? To philosophers, I suspect, it was a matter of class—“I won’t marvel at and believe myths as the multitude does, for they are ignorant sheep and need to be either taught or challenged, even ridiculed” would probably be the mode of thought in their heads. And yet it surprises me that they wouldn’t believe Apollo would shoot arrows, but they would take pleasure in the useless allegories of Plato. The allegory of the cave is such an unfounded piece of fiction with less sense and utility than any myth. The only philosopher I respect (and with limit) in this case is Aristotle who states that “the myth should be taken or studied as it is”. He obviously didn’t believe in those but at least he had the sense to see it was worth preservation and veneration.


  4. K

    Societies in the past had a different way of thinking about the moral framework and how people fit into it. Societies today have this sort of difference too, I have seen it myself. In tackling criticisms of Homer, I would first want to know what framework people in Homer’s time operated under.

    Homer’s own story has the background of adultery and the breach of guest right(xenia). Menelaus and the rest of the Achaeans were just as angry if not more about the fact that Paris was the guest of Menelaus and broke his trust. When Menelaus was away, no less. Look to the Odyssey when Telemachus visits Sparta to see how seriously Menelaus took hospitality. He held it sacred as it should be. Paris coming to rob his house and steal his wife under peaceful pretenses disgusted even the honorable among the Trojans. According to the broader narrative of the Trojan War, the suitors of Helen swore an oath to assist the man that married her, which led to the response from all those Achaean lords. Oaths were not something one made idly, so they came, and others in hope of fame, plunder, and because of outrage. The Achaeans tried peaceful means, but the Trojans rejected them. Thinking that one is beyond consequences is hubris, another concept connected to morality.

    The Greeks considered the oath(horkos) a type of divinity or power, though you don’t hear of myths about Horkos. I consider taking an oath to be something like binding yourself by a power that even the gods respect work within. Hesiod had Horkos as a primordial entity for a reason. Oaths hold together not just human society, but also the gods and relations between humans and the gods.

    Book 3 of the Iliad
    “Then in their midst Agamemnon lifted up his hands and prayed aloud: “Father Zeus, that rulest from Ida, most glorious, most great, and thou Sun, that beholdest all things and hearest all things, and ye rivers and thou earth, and ye that in the world below take vengeance on men that are done with life, whosoever hath sworn a false oath; be ye witnesses, and watch over the oaths of faith. If Alexander slay Menelaus, then let him keep Helen and all her treasure; and we will depart in our seafaring ships. But if so be fair-haired Menelaus shall slay Alexander, then let the Trojans give back Helen and all her treasure, and pay to the Argives in requital such recompense as beseemeth, even such as shall abide in the minds of men that are yet to be. Howbeit, if Priam and the sons of Priam be not minded to pay recompense unto me, when Alexander falleth, then will I fight on even thereafter, to get me recompense, and will abide here until I find an end of war.”

    That sounds very serious to me, and looking at it gives a better idea of the moral framework of the setting. Granted, Aphrodite saves Paris, but she was not a party to the oath, and technically it was sworn as “if Menelaus kills Alexander”. That outcome never happened, both lived through the duel. Nothing was actually violated in the terms, and hostilities resume. Zeus already had it in mind that Troy was to fall, and the Trojans had helped ensure this fate.

    It is very clear that the gods are held to oaths no less than men are. This is very clear in Greek mythology, even in Homer and Hesiod. Zeus nodding in assent to something was held to be assurance enough. Apollo and Poseidon were held responsible and punished for their actions by Zeus with indentured servitude. Apollo even had to get purified for killing Python, a mythic prototype of the rituals of purification. Swearing by Styx is absolute for a god, a many examples attest. The gods operate under their own set of mores and their own logic. The gods in the myths also operate in a framework of fate and necessity, though I am not clear on how much these things could be budged. At least Homer shows that there are different paths that lead to different outcomes(this is a point with Achilles and a minor character in the Iliad). In the example with Agamemnon not being punished, he may have escaped a smiting simply because it was not his time. Zeus did not even change things for Sarpedon. I have not seen a source where an ancient critic takes this sort of thing into consideration, whether Christian, Jewish, or pagan.

    In Homer’s time, the Greeks probably stoned adulterers to death. It certainly was not a laughing matter. It threatened the stability of families and of the community. It caused problems in reckoning kinship and inheritance and undermined authority. Adultery among the gods in myths though, probably was not considered so much of a problem back then. People told some of these stories for entertainment like the Phaeacians were shown doing, so they probably did not take them too seriously. Maybe the story really happened, maybe it didn’t, but they did not take them as some kind of religious dogma. The stories of gods coming to mortals and having children with them, that was considered a blessing. Humanity benefited overall from the heroes and demigods killing monsters, establishing order, inventing arts, and founding cities. People were eager to prove their descent back to a god via some hero. No one cared if Herakles was born of “adultery” while his brother Iphicles was not. Or that Perseus was born out of wedlock. Being born out of wedlock did not lead to any great stigma(see Teucer for example) and lead to no moral problem as such because the problems with adultery were not involved.

    Among the gods, things like adultery can’t be punished by death. That sort of punishment was invented and applied by humans for humans. What the gods do in their own community(not involving mortals) would have been considered their business, not ours. The critics of the story about Ares and Aphrodite fail to mention that they did get punished by humiliation, and the rest of the gods made light of them and their situation. Even made some jokes about it. You’d have to be a humorless moralizer to find the offers to take Ares’ place in the net with Aphrodite unfunny. After it is done with though, Ares and Aphrodite are let out and everyone goes back to (sort of) getting along. In the Iliad, even gods that disagree over the war are rather courteous to each other about it, and know the limits within which they should act. They do not do things without consideration.

    I will give my answer to the story about Odin and the Mead of Poetry. The Mead came from the creation of the Aesir and Vanir in the first place. It got to Suttung via a series of events that let to Suttung possessing it even though he did not steal it from the gods. Suttung got it as wergild(under duress) from the dwarves who acquired it by killing Kvasir(this was the theft). So Suttung was not liable for a direct theft against the gods. Still, Odin could not just let the jotnar(who are mostly at odds with the gods) keep something so valuable locked away. So he schemed to get it back. His working for Baugi led to him being owed(the Mead was promised under oath) something that would not be given to him. So he got himself a justification to go forward and just take it, since he had an ownership claim on it and it was also promised to him. Baugi also tried to betray Odin, which meant that dealing fairly was not an obligation after that, since the jotun brothers had broke the peace first. Even then, Suttung’s daughter agreed to give him a draught every night, it is just that Odin’s draughts were enough to drain a container in one go.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      This is all very well said and observed. The moral and intellectual framework by the time of Xenophanes had already changed against Homeric, or more generally the traditional & old principles, including about the Gods themselves. As I said, it was a matter of class—in the older days, at least since the fall of the Mycenaean civilization, the nobles and kings determined law and custom by virtue of their power, wealth and standing. The common people were by no means useless or powerless as a body, even though we can perceive some contempt directed towards them when Odysseus angrily silences a commoner during council and says “the demos are of no account in battle”. In such a military and unstable society, the greatest of Homeric virtues was φιλοτιμια, the love & pursuit of honor, which was acquired by bravery in the acts of war and in general μεγαλα εργα, great deeds, which include seizing precious booty, winning athletic contests, killing warriors in battle, offering wise council, providing generous feasts for guests, dressing well, patronizing poets, enlarging horse herds, etc. It was very much like the chivalry of the early Middle Ages (which had a “barbarian” tribal origin) and it even survived among “Mafias” in Southern Europe. The interesting thing, however, is that philotimia was also called αρετε (denoting bravery in particular), but that word was later to be appropriated by the common class in the sense of “moral virtue”. Yet a great part of the reason for the conflict between nobles and commoners was the dangerous precedent set by nobles in Corinth in 747 BCE, later to be followed throughout Greece, i.e. the overthrowing of kings. In doing so, a perpetual dualism between nobles and commoners arose in the absence of a royal arbiter. The idea of overthrowing kings and later of weakening nobles and overthrowing oligarchies spread fast for the same four reasons: 1) Increasing population which caused great pressure on classes 2) the polis system which arose through synoecism and placed a greater emphasis on koinonia (the common interests of several villages) than on phratry (tribal brotherhood) which led to necessities of justice and codifying law 3) the growing wealth of Greece from trade and resources, which enlarged the “middle class” of commoners, who now could challenge the old principle of Homer. 4) Changing principles associated with the growing power of the middle class.

      By the time Hesiod came in the middle of the 7th century, people were sick of nobles and their favorite poet Homer, and hence all the challenge that follows. Thales, a Phoenician by ancestry, probably thought of himself as the new Cadmus, battling various “monsters” and teaching the “word” to unlearned Greeks. There is an excellent book I have read lately, among the best I have ever seen, which you should look into, Bryant’s Moral Codes and Social Structure in Ancient Greece.


  5. K

    “In such a military and unstable society, the greatest of Homeric virtues was φιλοτιμια, the love & pursuit of honor, which was acquired by bravery in the acts of war and in general μεγαλα εργα, great deeds, which include seizing precious booty, winning athletic contests, killing warriors in battle, offering wise council, providing generous feasts for guests, dressing well, patronizing poets, enlarging horse herds, etc. It was very much like the chivalry of the early Middle Ages (which had a “barbarian” tribal origin) and it even survived among “Mafias” in Southern Europe. The interesting thing, however, is that philotimia was also called αρετε (denoting bravery in particular), but that word was later to be appropriated by the common class in the sense of “moral virtue”.

    Virtue itself is a changed term. It meant something like “manliness” from the Latin virtus. Later notions of virtue are based on more passive values. What is “virtue” today? I am not entirely sure. Christianity has managed to inculcate the idea that being the weaker side, the loser, and the oppressed is virtue. Modern leftism has taken this up as well. In the older sense of the word it was anything but that. I see the same change in values in later philosophy, though not as severe as in the Christian case. I am thinking of some sayings of Stoics that it is good to be morally right and abused for it. Who on earth would really want that, and what good would it do anyone?

    Geoffroi de Charny’s 14th century treatise on being a knight hits every one of those points about chivalry. There is a translation called “A Knight’s Own Book of Chivalry”. Hector of all the heroes mentioned by Homer was held up as a chivalrous exemplar in the Middle Ages. So were Aeneas, Troilus, and Hercules. Sigurd was also used as such an example, along with Theodoric(Dietrich von Bern).

    I am preparing to get a copy of Moral Codes and Social Structure in Ancient Greece. Though it will take some time to read it. I already have around 30 books ahead of it.

    Liked by 1 person


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s