Did Zeus Exist?

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When my children were little, they liked to play “Mother, May I?” At one point, I combined the game with an early introduction to classical culture, changing the key question to “Zeus, May I?” with an imaginary thunderbolt throwing back anyone forgetting to ask permission.

Reminiscing about this recently, I asked the kids if they had thought that Zeus was real.  “Well,” one said, “I knew he didn’t exist anymore, but figured that he did back in ancient Greece.” This set me thinking about why we are so certain that Zeus never existed. Of course, we are in no position to say that he did.  But are we really in a position to say that he didn’t?

 

 


Brecht Vandenbroucke

The standard line of thought seems to be that we have no evidence at all for his existence and so have every right to deny it.  Perhaps there is no current evidence of his existence — certainly no reports of avenging thunderbolts or of attempted seductions, no sightings around Mount Olympus.  But back in the day (say, 500-400 B.C.), there would seem to have been considerable evidence, enough in any case to make his reality unquestioned among most members of a rapidly advancing Greek civilization.

Further, as this civilization developed the critical tools of historiography and philosophy, Zeus’s reality remained widely unquestioned.  Socrates and Plato criticized certain poetic treatments, which showed Zeus and the gods in an unworthy light.  But they never questioned the very existence of the gods, and Socrates regularly followed the dictates of his daimon, a personal divine guide.  There were many questions about the true nature of the divine, but few about its existence.

Why did belief in the gods persist in spite of critical challenges? What evidence seemed decisive to the ancient Greeks?   Robert Parker, in his recent authoritative survey, “On Greek Religion,” emphasizes the role of what the Greeks saw as experiences of divine actions in their lives. ”The greatest evidence for the existence of gods is that piety works . . . the converse is that impiety leads to disaster,”  with by far the most emphasis given to the perils of ignoring the gods.  There were also rituals, associated with the many cults of specific gods, that for some worshippers “created a sense of contact with the divine. One knows that the gods exist because one feels their presence during the drama of the mysteries or the elation of the choral dance.”  More broadly, there were “epiphanies” that could “indicate not merely a visible or audible epiphany (whether in the light of day or through a dream . . .) but also any clear expression of a god’s favor such as weather conditions hampering an enemy, a miraculous escape, or a cure; it may also be used of the continuing disposition of a god or goddess to offer manifest assistance.”

Most of us do not find our world so filled with the divine, and we may be inclined to dismiss the Greeks’ “experiences” as over-interpretations.  But how can we be so sure that the Greeks lived in the same sort of world as we do?  What decisive reason do we have for thinking that for them divinity was not a widely and deeply experienced fact of life?  If we cannot eliminate this as a real possibility, shouldn’t we hold a merely agnostic position on Zeus and the other Greek gods, taking seriously the possibility that they existed but holding that we have good reason neither to assert nor deny their existence?

Let’s consider some objections.

Written By: Gary Gutting | The New York Times
continue to source article at opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com

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  1. Oh, for fucks sake!

    “Gary Gutting is a professor of philosophy at the (Catholic) University of Notre Dame,”

    Yea, figures.

    Try a bit of philosophy from Karl Popper – “How would you know if you are wrong?”

  2. We’re in a position to say that it meant something.

    Gad-Zeus! is a popular exclamation when we feel the power of zeus poetically.

    There are some writings about Zeus being the god of the olympians. So therefore are olympians a bunch of bright-sparks (people), or perhaps people who commit great feats are inspired by a bright surge of power.

  3. the people who worshiped Zeus claimed to experience his presence in their everyday lives and, especially, in their religious ceremonies. There’s no reason for us to accept this claim, but we have no reason for thinking they were wrong.

    Experience the presence of WHAT? Just saying “Zeus” is meaningless. What IS that? And even if all the people who worshipped “Zeus” really did experience a presence – a presence of something real – how could they or anyone else know that it was this Zeus, whatever that is?

    It’s just pure gibberish.

  4. The author demonstrates a poor grasp of ancient polytheism. And modern atheism, for that matter. But he doesn’t need to understand them. This is just “philosophy for a paycheck”. Throwing out something “shocking” to get the paper attention.

    • In reply to #7 by downshifter:

      The author demonstrates a poor grasp of ancient polytheism. And modern atheism, for that matter. But he doesn’t need to understand them. This is just “philosophy for a paycheck”. Throwing out something “shocking” to get the paper attention.

      You don’t see this as a witty take on common Christian apologetics? It seems clear to me that it is satire.

  5. One of my biggest complaints when I hear atheism talked about in the mainstream is the misconception that Atheism and Agnosticism are mutually exclusive and that Atheists are aligned with claiming there is no god (such as this author did) I even hear some atheists help to add confusion to this during talks and writings.

    Most Atheists are agnostics. Atheists don’t say gods do not exist. Simple. If this message could be stated more clearly more often it might help the perception that some have.

    Or is it that they do know the difference and want to misrepresent us?

  6. Last year I too two courses on Mythology from the free online site CourseRA.org. What I learned is that the Greek documents are similar to the Old and New Testaments in just about every aspect except that there is a more defined sense of who the author was, but only in the same way as a discussion of who Shakespeare really was.

    The translations that have been passed down to our era have significant impact on the meanings of the written subject. An example would be Kelos which could mean hereditary power or fate but depending on how it was used in conjunction with a person or god, or a person who was being assisted by a god, or a person who a god was manipulating it would have different meanings, none of which come through in the translations.

    One of the books we read had an underlying theme of younger people’s non-belief with a built in moral on what bad things happen.

    Most of the larger books, like The Iliad seem to be missing sections.

    There was a lot of virgin births and raising from the dead to become a god as well.

    It all seemed like earlier versions of Christianity, or more like Christianity was the fine-tuned version of Greek Mythology.

  7. “On reflection, then, I’m inclined to say that an atheistic denial of Zeus is ungrounded.”

    An atheistic denial of Zeus is unproblematic; we deny the existence of any god and that includes Zeus. A religious denial is much more difficult, as religious people accept the same kind of ‘proofs’ of the existence of their god(s) as the ancient Greek did with Zeus. So, if you deny the existence of Zeus, you would also have to accept the denial of your own favorite god or gods.

  8. Does this sort of pomo wankery fly in any field other than theology and the fine arts? Stuff like this isn’t even specious, as that would imply that it is in some way appealing or convincing, which it obviously ain’t.

  9. Actually I thought it was a pretty god article. I don’t know what Gary Gutting’s personal belief is, but I presume this article is tongue in cheek and he hopes religious people will insert the name of their god every time Zeus gets name-checked.

    Here’s a good line from the article:

    Robert Parker, in his recent authoritative survey, “On Greek Religion,” emphasizes the role of what the Greeks saw as experiences of divine actions in their lives. ”The greatest evidence for the existence of gods is that piety works . . . the converse is that impiety leads to disaster,” with by far the most emphasis given to the perils of ignoring the gods.

    This is absolutely true and is fed by the idea that seems to hang around generation after generation that the world is getting worse every year. People then look around for a reason – the most commonly cited is moral decay and being an atheist puts you right in line for blame.

  10. I can state with a fair amount of certainty that God, indeed all Gods, do in fact exist, but only in the mind(s) of believers.

    On personal experience I cannot however state positively that Gary Gutting exists.

  11. I suspect there was no evidence, but there were people who would make life miserable for you if you did not profess the existence of Zeus, and give some offerings to Zeus. It was an ancient shakedown. Nothing has changed.

    I think it is pretty well established that the main determinant of belief is how the people around you claim to believe.

    Back in the 1970s I was dealing with hundreds of gays who had been abused all their lives by Christians who convinced them they had no right to exist. There was nothing I could do much to help them except invited them to gathering to talk to other gays to had been to a previous gathering. The effect was almost instant. They instantly flipped to a new self accepting attitude — the majority view which I had originally seeded.

    This suggest getting Christian to atheist gatherings may be the most effective approach of converting them. They are even more herd animals than usual.

  12. I think the key word here is “divinity”, it is common for theologians steeped in the tradition of a monolithic monotheistic tradition to assume that, well… all Gods are created with common characteristics, but this is simply not the case, it is almost certainly not the case in relation to the Gods of antiquity, the only distinct feature recognised by mortal Greeks was immortality of the Gods, and this is important, the fact that the Gods were for the most part exempt from the consequences of their actions, Gods walked amongst mortals but it was only the “heroes” that recognised them for what they were, it is worth noting that the writer chose “Zeus” who he assumes is the most important God, but Zeus did not create the universe, nor was he omnipotent and as any student of classics will confirm he certainly was not omniscient and not even the first among the Gods.

    Anyway, long story cut short, we return to the “divine”, that single word flags a particular world view that simply does not map to the beliefs of ancient Greece, it is certainly true that every grove, lake and vine was the domain of supernatural deities, and one’s fate largely rested on the favour of these often fickle spirits, but I doubt that the Greeks would have described them as “divine” at least in the sense that modern theologians would apply the term in relation to the character of the Gods, to the Greeks the Gods were not that dissimilar to themselves, only it was best not to provoke the ire of those responsible for one’s fate, maybe a bit of attention and flattery might be the best option, yes?

    The Greeks relationship to their Gods is rather complicated and bears little association to a religion that has a single, omnipotent, omniscient and allegedly omnibenevolent deity, in fact I suspect that the concept of “religion” as such would have been a problematic concept for the ancient Greeks, but the “Gods” on the other hand, well they were simply a fact of life, the accusation of impiety in the Greek polies I often think is the equivalent of the attempt by schoolchildren to stop one of their number provoking the school bully and bringing on them unwelcome attention, but did they believe these “Gods” were morally superior? I suggest not, often the Gods behaviour was considered reprehensible, because it was mortals that ultimately suffered the consequences of their immoderations and often in Greek myth it is the (mortal) “hero” that is held as the exemplar of all things that mere mortals should strive for, even in defiance of the will of a God or Gods.

    That, after all, is what Heroes are…

  13. Zeus and the rest of the ancient gods may have existed earlier on as ordinary individuals who were later immortalized as gods.
    It was even speculated in ancient times that the gods were simply deified individuals who lived in an earlier time by Euhemerus late 4th century BCE.

  14. I definitely read that as satire/mockery of belief in any deity. If you’re going to believe in a god, how can you dismiss Zeus?
    I agree. I don’t believe in Zeus or any other god, but I agree with the reasoning used in the article.

    In fact, I can imagine if you removed the references to Greece and Zeus, and presented it to a Christian apologist as an argument they would agree with it totally…until you showed them which gods existence it was supporting.

  15. Regardless of what whether Socrates believed his inner daemon was a supernatural or not or he was tried and executed for “not believing in the gods of the state”.
    This to me is the real lesson from this article. Belief in magic because of a lack of science justifies murdering on of finest minds in history.
    At least they had an excuse, science was in its infancy then.

  16. I’d love to think this was a poe, a piece of satire, but I don’t think it is (which, I suppose, makes it a really good one if it is!)

    What disturbs me is that a Professor of Philosophy so blithely conflates atheism and agnosticism, as though not being able to disprove a god suddenly invalidates an absence of belief in it…

    O.

  17. Well there’s no doubt that Dionysus existed ! I see the evidence of wine often ! Without Dionysus, Jesus wouldn’t have been able to pull that party trick at the wedding ! Bloody impostor !

  18. Does Zeus exist? is an uninteresting question. Obviously, he does. As a mythical being. Same for all the other gods, Aphrodite, Yahweh, Hanuman and all the rest. The interesting thing is why they were created and whether they continue to be of any use, if they ever were.

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