And Most Ancient Greeks Didn’t Live In Ancient Greece Either, They Lived In Tacoma

While I do watch a fair amount of television, somehow or another I’d managed to miss every episode of the History Channel‘s new “Clash of the Gods” series. I’d heard about it from Gen and a few other folks in my Grove, and a few people on the e-mail list for ADF’s Hellenic Kin had mentioned it, with mixed opinions. Well, “mixed” until the airing of the episode about Hades a few weeks ago, which prompted Gen to send me a message at 1:30 AM containing more obscenities than I’ve ever heard out of her in one sitting. And the other folks who had liked the earlier episodes were a lot more hesitant in their praise for that one. So I sat down with my laptop at work (after the deliveries were done, of course – watching videos while driving is not on my list of fun things to do!) and saw it for myself.

I’ll say a few nice things about it: Despite what I was expecting, I kinda liked the effect of the weird contact lenses on the actors playing the gods. They’re often described as having shining eyes, and I thought that worked. The “voodoo doll” description was accurate, check out Fritz Graf’s Magic in the Ancient World if you want to learn more. And this bits about Orpheus were decent, though I’d have preferred a little more discussion about what happened to Orpheus *after* the Eurydice thing, and the existence and importance of the Orphic cult in the ancient world.

But man oh man, the scholarship on this was terrible. Over the years, I’ve heard very mixed reviews of the History Channel’s accuracy in its programming, and now that I’ve suffered through this episode, I can see why. From least annoying to me, to most:

“There were no temples to Hades in the ancient world, because they were so afraid of him.”

Close to true. Hades certainly wasn’t the most popular kid in the metaphorical Olympus High School, and wouldn’t have won any popularity contests. But there was at least one temple to him and Persephone that we know of. (Hek, it was easy enough for me to find on Google: see http://gogreece.about.com/od/weirdgreece/ig/Nekromanteion/ or http://www.greeceathensaegeaninfo.com/destinations-greece-nekromanteion.htm) (Also see Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, p. 114-115) As for how they felt about Hades, I’ll return to that a bit later.

“The Greeks never made offerings to Hades or Persephone.”

Wrong-o. In addition to the temple mentioned above, many temples had altars for making offerings to them, often the grave site of a hero. (Burkert, p. 202) And since Hades was ruler of the earth, he had dominion over the metals and gems found within, so artisans who worked with those substances would make offerings to those gods for help with their vocations.

“The myth of Persephone staying with Hades for three months was the Greek’s way of explaining why they couldn’t grow crops in the winter.”

That would work out great – if this was a myth from northern Europe. In Greece, as in most of the Mediterranean, crops are planted in the fall and grown in the winter, otherwise the summer heat would damage them. (Burkert, p. 160) I suppose you can try to justify it as an explanation of why they couldn’t grow crops in the summer, but then the show’s visuals of wind and snow wouldn’t make a Hek of a lot of sense.

“Most ancient Greeks didn’t practice infanticide, so that’s why Kronos eating his children was so abhorrent to them, because infanticide was abhorrent to them.”

A-bu-wa-HUH??? I literally rewound the video file to make sure I’d heard that correctly. A woman named Kristina Milnor, apparently not just a professor at Barnard College but head of the Classics Department there, said that. And I’m spent much time since seeing that wondering how anyone who thinks that has a degree, never mind a professorship. (Maybe they recorded the piece on “Opposite Day”?) The only more incorrect statement she could have made was, “Most ancient Greeks didn’t speak ancient Greek.” Of course the Greeks practiced infanticide! The Spartans actually had their city council vote on whether a newborn baby would be allowed to live, and the rejects either became slaves or just got thrown into a pit called the Apothetai, “place of throwaways”. The Athenians left that decision to the father, who had up to seven days to decide whether to let their child live or die. Those who were thrown away were left out in the wilderness outside the city, where the Fates might spare them by letting someone save and adopt them. Zaidman and Pantel, Religion in the Ancient Greek City, p. 64-65) This tradition of infant exposure features prominently in many Greek myths, including one about an obscure character names “Oedipus”, presumably one that Professor Milnor has not learned about in her extensive studies. No, folks, the eating of children was abhorrent to them because it’s cannibalism, not because it’s infanticide. Indeed, I can think of no better way to refute Milnor’s claim that to quote:

The historical Greeks considered barbarous the practice of adult and child sacrifice. However, exposure of newborns was widely practiced in ancient Greece. In Greece the decision to expose a child was typically the father’s, although in Sparta the decision was made by a group of elders. Exposure was the preferred method of disposal, as that act in itself was not murder; moreover, the exposed child technically had a chance of being rescued by the gods or any passersby. This very situation was a recurring motif in Greek mythology.

Yep, folks, that’s right. Wikipedia got it right, and Milnor didn’t.

Even more frustrating to me personally, though – and I know that not everyone will agree with me on this – was the constant references to Christianity throughout this episode (and the other episodes in the series, according to Gen and others I’ve talked to). Why do they have to keep comparing Hades to Satan? Why oh why do they actually cite the Book of Revelations and claim that it applies to Greek Gods? And I’m told that in an earlier episode, they claimed that the worship of Zeus was kind of like monotheism, and prepared the Greeks for the coming of Christianity. ‘Scuse me? Even the Greeks didn’t think that Zeus was omnipotent, being subject to the will of the Fates – and yet Zeus could occasionally thwart their will to save a mortal. (see http://www.theoi.com/Daimon/Moirai.html) Nobody’s really omnipotent in this worldview.

And yet some of my fellow Hellenic Kin members said on the mailing list that even if the content was somewhat – or wildly (no infanticide???) – inaccurate, that it’s just good that the stories of our gods and our Ancestors of Spirit are being shown on TV. With respect to my Kinmates, no. No, it’s not good. I don’t worry much about what other people say about my gods, I figure that the gods are powerful enough to take care of themselves, and if they’re not, then I need to go find some new gods! But spreading such lies and half-truths about the ways of the ancients doesn’t honor them, and it certainly doesn’t help us modern Neo-Pagans who are trying to explain our ways to our families and friends and neighbors. Yes, I know I complained last year in this blog about people overreacting to a comment from Kathy Lee Gifford. But nobody thinks that Kathy Lee Gifford is an expert on classical studies. Lots of people will trust what professors on a History Channel program say – seriously, no infanticide in ancient Greece??? And I really think that this harms our ability to practice our tradition and share it with others. If we’re lucky, people will tell us that they believe these lies, and we can try to tell them the truth about what the ancients did and believe. If we’re not lucky, they won’t ask and they’ll go right on believing that Hades was universally despised by the ancient people that told his stories and honored him and, yes, built temples to him.

While I don’t consider myself a particular devotee of Lord Aidonius (one of Hades’ many names), I’ve always found it fascinating that the Greeks could envision a god who was both Olympian (brother of Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Poseidon and Zeus) and Chthonic (master of the depths of the earth and all within it) at the same time, combining within himself something of each kind of deity. As Burkert notes on p. 203 of Greek Religion: “The contours of the everlasting Olympian figures provided a standard and a sense of direction; and yet in the reality of the cult their dark counterparts were retained in such a way that superficiality was avoided.” In trying to understand Hades and his place in the ancient world, we modern practitioners may find a better sense of how the Greeks viewed their gods, their gods’ place in the cosmos, and their own place in the world, and in so doing learn something about our new tradition and about ourselves.

Rev. Rob Henderson
Senior Druid, Shining Lakes Grove, ADF

PS – No infanticide in ancient Greece? Seriously? Did nobody at the History Channel check on this?

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One thought on “And Most Ancient Greeks Didn’t Live In Ancient Greece Either, They Lived In Tacoma

  1. (Comments from the original post on our old site:)

    Posted by Daniel Mosher:
    Soooo true. Thank you for sharing this bit of commentary with me. My other half doesn’t understand why I found this series so damned insulting; to my intelligence as well as to my gods. Even as I am always learning new things along the way about the Greek Gods, Greek history / mythology etc, there were maaaaajor discrepancies that even I (a regular lay person and worshiper) found profoundly inaccurate. And yes… the perpetual swinging things around to Christianity… I just found myself screaming at the television! And, yes, I did a lot of swearing as well.

    I’ve been trying to avoid using the word “pagan” to describe myself, mostly because of its horrible origins and use against the very practitioners of ancient Greek religious cults we’re trying to understand and emulate (save for the child exposure). But, that’s just me. I learned about the REAL history about how the Church “converted” the ancients, and it wasn’t peaceful. As it is, I have an axe to grind against the “Bloody Romans” who, among other atrocities, plundered the Delphic temple of Apollon for its riches and absorbed my gods into their muddled pantheon derived much from around the Empire at large. But the Church! Don’t get me started.
    Monday, August 2nd 2010 @ 7:05 PM

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