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The Greek Cosmos
Behind practically every Greek thought about the human, its place in existence, its possibilities and functions lies an idea, which is so fundamental, that we have to reproduce it with its Greek term. This is the idea about the Cosmic. The word Cosmos means world and beauty at the same time, and thereby it is revealed that these two terms – which are very different for us – were inevitably connected for the Greek. Only the beautiful – which in Greek terms relates to the orderly, balanced and harmonic – is really there, is the world, and conversely is the world graceful in its pure sense because it is determined by equality and symmetry. The Cosmic is the secret of existence itself, and it is therefore the project of the human to act according to this cosmic harmony. The idea of the world's cosmic nature is verbalized in the mythical conceptions of its creation.
In the old times a lot of poems have existed concerned with the way the world was created, but only one is preserved and that is Hesiod’s “Theogony” from approx. 700 BC. It is on the other hand very characteristic and has had the greatest influence on the Greek way of life. A peculiar element of “Theogony” is the thought that the genesis of the universe and the gods merge. First emerged chaos – the “matter” of existence, but without shape or appearance. Thereafter the earth showed itself, the dark Tartarus, and the creating force Eros, the darkness and night; from the Earth Heaven was born, the Mountains and the Ocean. Earth and Heaven were the initial pair of gods and from them a great number of families appear. As one might notice, we are talking about different parts of the universe as well as Gods. At a certain point in this development the Olympic gods appear; they approach and gain control of the world under dramatic circumstances. They distribute it among each other.
The Nature of the Greek Gods
What is the meaning behind this fantastic depiction? Firstly, we realize that gods are not here from the start. It is not like in Israel where god is the creator of everything. Quite the opposite is true. The gods have first been created in the course of development; they are part of it themselves, and therefore they do not master it. This explains the greek opinion towards the Gods: They can seek help among the gods, they can worship them and so on. The gods can also often deal with humans as they wish and make devastating interference. But the Greek are not dogmatic; there is not requirement of a certain creed or deep, honest devotion to the Gods; as long as one does not directly deny their existence or refuse to be a part of their cult; the Greek does not feel “handed over” to them in the same sense the the man of Israel does. The Greek man does not expect everything from these gods and he does not directly fear them. And the Gods and not absolutely supreme; above them reigns another concept; they are capable of much, but there are limitations to their power, and their function is primarily to be intermediary subjects. The world is according to this view in existence prior to the Gods. To the Greek, the world is not created. Granted, chaos emerged at first; but at the same time it means that the world has in fact always been, but that it was initially chaotic – unarranged, figureless. The development came because the world in itself contained active and arranging forces, and its inner secret is that the disordered successively will sort itself, will order itself. This direction is known as “from chaos to cosmos”.
The Beautiful, Harmonic and Balanced Cosmos
Therefore the world is now able – under the rule of the Olympic gods – to be called cosmos, for it is beautiful, well-arranged, harmonic and balanced; and it is so in itself. It has reality, it has content. It is not obtained by a God from the purest nothing, and it is therefore not exposed to the immediate danger of relapsing back into nothingness. It is.
This view as the world as a cosmos, which in itself is real, is so fundamental for the Greeks, that they always maintain it; even when one left the myths and attempt to understand existence speculatively and philosophically, this view has not been left. It is perhaps most significantly expressed by Plato. When he in one of his biggest dialogues “Timaeus” attempts to deal with the creation of the world, he leaves a god as a “Creator”; but really this Creating God is merely one who arranges the present content or matter. He has the matter in front of him; he does not create it, it is simply there, and he is supposed to do something with it. And neither does he shape this matter in pure randomness; he has his goal which is some kind of eternal model, similar to when an artist sees within his mind what he wants to create.
Ideally the world is therefore eternal, and the meaning of the Gods is only, that they have modeled its shape into the material of the matter. The philosophical idea of Plato as the deity as the insightful arranger of cosmos has in more ordinary texts been expressed in the religious thought that the Gods must preserve the great cosmic connection. They must make it work, and they must keep an eye on the balance and whether it is maintained in all places. When the Greek world of gods is so rich, has so many gods and myths, it is because the Gods are viewed as intermediary and therefore ubiquitous creatures. A remote, elevated and abstract deity cannot be told of in stories, but Gods which have tasks and important functions to maintain – they must be talked of and defined through the myths; It must be told how they performed various feats which the given world still is upheld by.
The feats of the Gods strangely do become old and gone and present and real at the same time. The duties which were done in the prehistoric times must be repeated every single day, for it is through these fundamental actions cosmos is maintained. It is this repetition of feats done by the gods in the mythical times which the religious cult must launch. In the cult party the event of the myth happens once again; the deity in question deals with his or her own area of life, recreates its order so to speak and gives it power to function. In this way Gods and their activity is experienced very closely; it becomes a true and close reality.
The Greek Mythical Traditions
Among the Greek there is this peculiarity of the cultic life that no connected religion is created. The single god has its own temple, its own cult and its own parties, and to some extent it could be said that he – as the maintaining force of the cosmic order – is only present once a year when the mythical event takes place. The rest of the year the temple is closed; there are no daily worshipping or anything. The god has no dominant role in the society in this gap of time. Because there are a huge number of gods, the year becomes filled with parties – each with their special content and special sentiment, and when the Greek never feel a craving to work them all together it is perhaps because the feeling of cosmos is so true that one does not need to balance it through some cultic unity. The tasks of the Gods is not only limited to maintaining cosmos and to protect the city, polis. They also must keep an eye on the individual and lead his way.
This of course is a permanent job for the Greek gods. The Greek feel that the gods constantly intervene with their existence. Obvious humans have a limited power in its own life; it can consider which goals it wants to strive for, and it can from moment to moment change its decision regarding whatever subject. But on the other hand it is also quite clear that something irrational takes place; the human can become enthralled by an affection or passion – and in that case it will perhaps act differently. It experiences passion as something external, something strange which suddenly steals its power. Under these circumstances, it seems obvious to interpret passion as an obsession of the Gods. When for instance the great inspiration comes to the artist, then it is a gift sent from the muses. Or when the warrior is elated with rage it is the God of war Ares which leads the battle. In this way any of the Gods can drive a human to very fateful actions, and in some strange way the human is suddenly responsible for something which it is not guilty of. It does give rise to certain problems.
My mythology related website
- Greek Gods for Kids
Twelve Greek gods for kids: Learn about Greek mythology, Olympian gods, see pictures of Greek gods and learn about their special powers and their families.