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The Nature of the Gods

The Greeks believed that their gods lived easy lives, sometimes exposed to pain in their dealings with one another but essentially care-free in their immortality. The twelve most important of the gods, headed by Zeus, were conceived as assembling for banquets atop Mount Olympus, the highest peak in mainland Greece.1They are known as the Olympic pantheon (“collectivity of gods”). They as well as some other, lesser deities were conceived in anthropomorphic form, both female and male. Like the human aristocrats of the stories of Homer, the gods were much concerned with slights to their honor. “I am well aware that the gods are full of envy and disruptive towards humans,” is the Athenian Solon's summary of their nature in one of the many (and probably fictitious) anecdotes in which he is portrayed as giving advice to another famous person, in this case the Lydian king Croesus before he lost his kingdom to the Persians.2 Seers, prophets, diviners, oracles, dreams—all these agents were regarded as clues to what humans might have done to anger the gods. Offenses could be those of omission, such as forgetting a sacrifice, or of commission, such as violating the sanctity of a temple area or breaking an oath or sworn agreement made to another person. The gods were regarded as especially concerned with certain transgressions (such as oaths3), but as generally not bothering with common crimes, which humans had to police for themselves. Homicide, however, the gods were thought to punish by casting a state of pollution4 (miasma, as it was called) upon murderers and upon all those around them as well. Unless the members of the affected group took steps to purify themselves by punishing the murderer, they could all expect to suffer divine punishment such as bad harvests or disease.

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