Humanism in Greek Mythology
How it works
Humanism is the belief that basically the experiences of humans and thinking rationally provide the only real source of moral code to live by and knowledge as well. In many myths, it is a human who is the hero and usually the hero is a humanist themselves. Normally in myths, even if there are gods and goddesses, they are rarely prayed too and are normally not treated like deieties but just as gods and goddesses who have emotions just like humans.
Many gods have been shown to be anthropomorphic, which means they do indeed show human characteristics. So even though some myths are about gods, they too have to learn, grow and adapt from their past experiences. So in a way the gods themselves could be called humanists. In turn, the gods and goddesses of mythology sometimes seem to show more emotion than the mortals in their stories and thus it is interesting to see how gods and mortals interact when emotions run wild.
A good example of an anthropomorphic god is Poseidon because he expresses many different human emotions, but mainly anger. Poseidon is very different from his Brother Zeus and does not have a level head like his brother does. Poseidon has been shown in many myths being very angry and moody, much like the unpredictability of the sea. For example, In the Odyssey, the protagonist, Odysseus tries to return home after the Trojan war.
However, he is met with many obstacles like mystical beasts and vengeful gods. An example of this is when Odysseus angers the sea god Poseidon. Odysseus and his 12 companions sail to the island of the Cyclops and the one they would meet was named Polyphemus . There, he and his men waited in the Cyclops’ cave and later that evening he returned. When the Cyclops returned, he ate two of Odysseus’ men and then ate four more of Odysseus’ men that next day. The authors Morford, Lenardon and Sham describe the death of the Cyclops as such: “Odysseus gave Polyphemus some of Maron’s wine and said that his name was “Nobody” (in Greek, Outis).
Then, while Polyphemus lay in a drunken sleep, Odysseus and his companions drove a heated wooden pole into his eye. When the other Cyclopes, hearing the cries of Polyphemus, came to the cave (which was closed by a huge rock) to ask what was wrong, he cried out, “Nobody is killing me,” and they left.” (302) Once Odysseus sets sail from the island of the Cyclops, the Cyclops still tries to attack Odysseus by through a mountain at him and attempting to wreck his ship.
Polyphemus prays to Poseidon for revenge on Odysseus and Poseidon, who was both a vengeful god and also the father of Polyphemus, obliged the request. He brought forth a large sea storm and wrecked Odysseus’ ship. This is an example of Poseidon using his powers on mortals, but also at the same time this action humanizes him as a character because you see him grieving for his son through his violent acts of the sea. In classic as well as modern mythology, Poseidon seems to express human emotions like anger and violence in many myths.
Poseidon is a vengeful god and even though he has some human emotions, he tends to lack empathy for most humans. He has let his anger get the best of him in many myths. Another example is Poseidon and Athena and their contest for Athens. The King, who was King Cecrops wants a great patron deity for his city. Both Athena and Poseidon wanted this honor and nearly went to war over the matter. However, a contest was suggested by Athena.
The basis for the contest was that both Poseidon and Athena would present the city with some type of gift. Then whatever gift King Cecrops deems better is the winner. First up was Poseidon and he plunged his trident into the earth in order to create a flowing spring for the people of Athens. However, the water he produced was salty and so the sadly people of the city had no use for it. Then Athena stepped up, she planted something in the ground, which was later revealed to be olive trees. The people of Athens were then able to use the trees for wood, food and oil. Athena was then deemed the winner and patron deity of Athens by King Cecrops.
After this, Poseidon is envious of Athena and is very angered. He ends up cursing Athens so that they would never have enough water again. Along with this he also flooded some other cities out of anger. This shows that Poseidon didn’t really care about helping the people of Athens and just wanted the glory of being the deity. With his defeat, he turned on the people of Athens and cursed them out of anger and jealousy.
Another good example of how humanism is a central theme in myths is the saga of the Seven Against Thebes. This saga centers on the struggle and fight for power between brothers. This myth isn’t about gods for the most part, but instead about brothers fighting for power and dying because of it. The basis of the saga is that two brothers have to decide who will rule and sit on the Theban throne.
They decided to rule over alternative years, but when the time came for Polyneices to make good on his promise to his brother, Eteocles refused to step down from the throne and instead exiled his brother. Polyneices returned with an army of seven and a battle was waged. After the fight is over all seven men are dead and the brothers have killed each other. To me this story symbolizes what can happen when greed and selfishness are prominent within a person and how those emotions can lead to the suffering of others.
In conclusion, after further discussing examples of anthropomorphic gods and humanism in myths I see that by using these elements in the story it makes it even more relatable to the reader. Everyone can relate to feeling jealous and angry like Poseidon or feeling betrayed like Polyneices. I see that this is one of the reasons mythology is timeless. This is because it is very unique in featuring vulnerable gods and goddesses. Normally gods are shown being all powerful and kind hearted, whereas in mythology they can be featured as the protagonist, antagonists or even as just an obstacle. Overall, I think mythology will always be a great example of stories with humanistic values and relatable, unique anthropomorphic gods and goddesses.