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θεοὺς μιαίνειν. Teiresias had said that the altars were defiled (1016). Creon replies that he will not yield, even if birds fly with the carrion up to the very throne of Zeus;—‘for no mortal can pollute the gods.’ Campbell takes this to be an utterance of scepticism, like “οὐκ ἔφα τις θεοὺς βροτῶν ἀξιοῦσθαι μέλειν” (Aesch. Ag. 369),—anticipating the Epicurean conception of gods who are neither pleased nor angered by men.

This view seems to do some injustice to the poet's dramatic psychology. I read the words quite differently. The most orthodox Greek piety held that ‘no mortal could pollute the gods.’ See, for example, H. F. 1232. Heracles, having recovered sanity after slaying his children, has covered his face, to hide it from the holy light of the sun. Theseus —who is a type of normal “εὐσέβεια”— makes him uncover, saying,—“τί δ᾽; οὐ μιαίνεις θνητὸς ὢν τὰ τῶν θεῶν”. The sungod cannot be polluted by a mortal. The idea of religious “μίασμα” was that a mortal had contracted some impurity which disqualified him for communion with the gods. The tainting of an altar cut off such communion by bringing uncleanness to the very place where men sought to be cleansed. Creon excitedly imagines a seemingly worse profanation, and then excuses his apparent impiety by a general maxim which all would admit:—‘no man can pollute the gods.’

‘The sky-throne of Zeus is still more sacred than his altar on earth: if defilement cannot reach him there, much less here.’ The sophism is of the kind with which an honest but stubborn and wrongheaded man might seek to quiet his conscience. Creon reveres Zeus (304): he feels for the majesty of the gods, and refuses to believe that they can honour the wicked (284 ff.). But his religious sense is temporarily confused by his anger.

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    • Aeschylus, Agamemnon, 369
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