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We live among gods and demigods

I know a someone who’s studying Greek mythology. He isn’t very impressed and told me so, probably baiting me. He fixed me in the eye and said “Put it this way, I’m not going to care about it in college.” It was all I could muster to reply “Maybe.” I feigned not being sure myself, which was puzzling, telling him that he would find that Greek Gods had an odd habit of popping up in almost every academic discipline, especially Western literature, as if that would have mattered to him. Then I made a bet that the names of gods had come up in his favorite reads, Calvin and Hobbes and the Far Side. Nope he said. He wouldn’t have noticed, his mother chimed in, if he didn’t know them.

If he wasn’t going to do it, I thought I’d write his paper.

I thought about how content I felt having coaxed he and his siblings through attending a staged Odyssey, aided by a large and embarrassingly aromatic bag of m&ms. Surely Odysseus in the flesh was a head start I didn’t have. And I thought about how to have explained the gods further. They were more than themed superheroes, they were Gods. Do you capitalize gods in the plural? We spell it He, but not Them. Do we have their like in the Virgin of Guadalupe or St. Francis of Assisi? The Saints I guess, were not long ago role models: St. Bernadette, St. Joan, St. Barts (just kidding), St. Nick.

Of what import gods? As goes God, so too The Gods?

How do you explain the meaning of the classic gods, their relevance to Greek and Roman lives, in this age of monotheism? We’re not even that, we believe in a plurality of single gods. The best of us tolerate all, but believe that in their multitude of identities we’re only talking about one. A singular omniscient deity would have been strange to the Greeks, just as a committee of squabbling immortals would seem horribly inutilitarian to us.

My quandary extended some because in actuality monotheism was a framework I was imposing. In a single boomer generation, most of us now inhabit a secular universe, where religion is mostly lipservice to tradition. We may or may not talk to our consciences, God resides in us yada yada, but for the practical purpose of talking about God or gods, it’s academic.

So what’s the difference, one god or three, I’m thinking of the holy trinity, or a last supper full, or a whole class of 300 BC, many of whom are no longer on speaking terms? Then it occurred to me that today’s secular ungodly society probably resembles that of the Romans or Greeks more than I thought. We’re an empire, as they, decaying into unholy fetishes. We’re post-sacrilegious decadence. And we’ve gone this way before: I’m thinking of the gladiators and slavery, indifference to inhumanity and carnality, form over function and spectacle.

Our consumer culture is the golden calf and very likely Apollo’s temple is a brick and mortar edifice –alright marble and stone– and it’s consulted for oracles. And specialist gods live side by side with us, they on the red carpet. Who are our role models, the vocational enthusiasts to whom we whisper private prayers, but our celebrities? Not gods of archery maybe, but gods of tennis and cycling, go without saying. Their mortality is inconsequential, because their trademarks are immortal. How tangible the Roman gods and demi-gods, their dalliances and bastard progeny, do seem now.

We may have jettisoned Nietzsche’s dead God, but lost none of our weak nature. We do still worship godly personages, except they rise from among us, from our perceived meritocracy. I’ve no doubt genetics is about to confirm that only a few humans are ordained to greatness, affirming our tribal yearning to celebrate blood ties and royal lineage. Soon enough we’ll designate our betters as a superior genus, ourselves only lowly servants content to bask in their spirit-enriching glow.

We do it already, we attend concerts, keep up on the tabloids, wait eagerly for their anointed tweets. We fashion our own ambitions after the super stars of our particular interests. Could that have been the extent of the Roman adulation for their mythic ancestors?

Might Roman society have grown to such decay that the living celebrities walked in the shadow of their unblemished cousins immortal? I’m thinking of the difference between Elvis and Tom Cruise, or between Marilyn and Madonna. The big gods died young. The larger-than-life who were unexpired were the living gods who saw the flame of their lifetime extinguished with entropy.

Of course, how to explain the protracted legacy of gods like that? Did there follow such a dearth of unexceptional humanity, judging through the filter of the Dark Ages and prism of the Enlightenment, that every cultural reference can only point back before the Greeks?

How would you explain today why James Dean or Salvador Dali should be remembered into perpetuity? Won’t future generations have their own Formerly-know-as-Princes and Marx Brothers Stooges for masses to hold in reverence?

The truth is no. Anomalies like Einstein and Mozart aside in the mortal hierarchies, the archetypal heroes of Western mankind’s understanding of his social self, established themselves during civilization’s formative years. Just as Jesus and Co emerged from proximate centuries, so did introspective man have a stone age during which the character range of his character was cast in stone. In theory.

Therefore, yes, the classical gods are for us to study, as we would metallurgy or farming. Lest we inhabit only the now, with Parises of Ashton Kutcher and Dianas of Sarah Jessica Parker.

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