Clashing theologies

So, the other day I started watching the History Channel’s series Clash of the Gods. Apparently it’s been out for a while, but I don’t normally watch documentaries. I couldn’t resist this one when I found it.


I’ve only seen the first episode, so far, which is about Zeus. The History Channel advertised the series as “the truth behind the myths.” I must say that they were really grabbling for this “truth.”

What “truth” really means, apparently, is finding the Judeo-Christian tradition in ancient myths. Sort of.

I tried to watch this with a grain of salt. I know that these documentaries are produced for the masses, not for someone like me who actually studies classical mythology.

They seem to be trying desperately to relate this to a Christian audience. They continuously referred to Tartarus and Hades as “hell” and Mount Olympus as “heaven.” They have it mixed up here, you see. Because in Greek mythology, all the dead go to Hades, regardless of the lives they led. True, Tartarus is the place for the ἄθεος (godless), but surely there’s a way to say that without the loaded Christianized word. Mount Olympus, on the other hand, is definitely nothing like the Christian heaven, though the documentary refers to it as such on more than one occasion. Mortals don’t go to Mount Olympus when they die. It’s just where the gods live. The ideal afterlife in the Greek World was spent in the Elysian fields, reserved for heroes and other virtuous mortals. The ancient Greek word οὐρανός, which roughly translates to “heaven” means the heavens, as in, the sky. Not as in the paradisaical afterlife.

The Oracle at Delphi is referred to as “a direct line to God.” God. In the singular. Really? Maybe they’re talking about a direct line to Zeus, right? Since they’ve been building him up to be the One True God (though the Greeks were polytheistic, there were some places where Zeus was the only important god, according to the documentary.) But this isn’t even true. The Oracle at Delphi was dedicated to Apollo. Questions asked at Delphi went to him, not to Zeus. It was Apollo who had the gift of prophecy. Failed to mention that little bit.

They try to find a monotheist tradition from the get-go. They start by comparing the birth and childhood of Zeus to that of Jesus or Moses (an important child born and hidden away in order to safely grow up and fulfill his destiny.) There are certainly similarities, but ever heard of Joseph Campbell? All traditional “heroes” have a mysterious birth or childhood. Perhaps that would have been worth mentioning, rather than tossing in a picture of Jesus in the manger and Moses in the rushes.

Next, they talk about Zeus’ destruction of the first race of man, with “a massive flood, one that may even be linked to the Biblical story of Noah.” It’s true that the archaeological and geological data point to the probability of a flood in and around the Mediterranean world at a time that was close enough for the Greeks to remember. And it could also very well date to the same flood as the Old Testament tells of Noah. It’s in mythology from all over the world, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Aztec, Hindu and even Irish tradition. This does not mean, as it was implied, that at heart the ancient Greeks were little monotheists waiting to happen.

The Greeks were polytheists, through and through. Their gods could not have been more different from the Judeo-Christian idea of God. Greek gods are not omniscient. They are basically like really powerful humans. With flaws and weaknesses, tempers and desires. And there are a lot of them, too. They liked it that way. Each little city state could have their own, that way.

As my friend and fellow classicist Kitty said: “Dear History channel: Zeus? Never really succeeded at the monotheism thing.”

And how do they finish it all off, you might ask?

“But there was one more challenger Zeus didn’t count on. Jesus Christ.”

Give me a break.

I understand the importance of drawing parallels between different mythologies. In fact, I love doing it. But they didn’t bother comparing it to any accept the Christian mythology. And this is the “truth” that they were promising us? What I don’t understand is why they don’t seem to think that these stories, which have lasted thousands of years already, can’t stand on their own? That people won’t understand them unless they’re Christianized?


  • By Dad, April 14, 2010 @ 1:16 pm

    Interesting enough, I have been watching a science fiction show called Caprica which is a prequel to Battlestar Galactica. One of the premises it uses is that society is polytheistic, based on Greco-Roman gods, and the monotheists are called “soldiers of the one” and are persecuted for their beliefs. Society believes that it is absurd that one God could control the universe and maintains that polytheism is more tolerant and embracing of other religions than the judgmental, authoritarian monotheism. Now when your ready for the relationship between sentient machines, humans and the titans in Dune, let me know.

  • By Eleni, April 14, 2010 @ 11:42 pm

    That is so obnoxious! I don’t think I could stand to watch a documentary with such a bizarre lens on the story. It sounds like they were trying to point out cases where ancient Greek polytheism mimics Christianity, but they should remember which one came first; these similarities they try so hard to find are actually cases in which Christianity mimics Greek mythology. Hmm.

    It’s funny, I thought of Caprica as well. I would say that the monotheists aren’t so much prosecuted (though they may be seen as sort of a rare cult, everyone is mostly religiously tolerant), but the Soldiers of the One are specifically a sometimes terrorist organization of monotheists, so the criticism they get is mostly legitimate. It is interesting, though, to see a thoroughly modern society (more technologically advanced than we are) where polytheism is the norm. The characters discuss the differences between monotheism and polytheism, much as we would, but from the point of view where monotheism is the stranger of the religions.

  • By Hezabelle, April 15, 2010 @ 6:30 am

    I’m thinking I’ll have to watch Caprica, now, for the polytheism!

  • By Dad, April 15, 2010 @ 1:39 pm

    The polytheism is not really a big part of the series except in it’s relationship to the Soldiers of the One. It mostly focuses on what the soldiers are, why they hate modern society and why they are terrorists. In some aspects, I guess you could say it does parallel ancient Rome in that society has become sick and corrupt, mostly through their virtual worlds, and that is what the soldiers are trying to destroy. Of course, the monotheists are not without their own corruption and vices as well. In short, it is a very intricate plot for a sci-fi series and can be hard to follow which is probably the reason it may be canceled before the story plays out.

  • By Lea, April 15, 2010 @ 6:43 pm

    Didn’t it go the other way around? Newer religions copying and altering the myths of older religions? That’s what I was taught. Then again, the same intellectual mindset also treats Jews as Christians waiting to happen, so maybe my opinion isn’t worth much.

  • By Sebastian, April 24, 2010 @ 11:45 am

    Ya, the polytheism in the Battlestar universe is pretty well done. A bit obvious — a bit blatant — but still, a different slant.

    “Little monotheists waiting to happen”… quite! You have to admit, given the quick growth of monotheism, that we probably have SOME kind of monotheistic bias inside of us.

    The whole ‘universal parable’ (’great flood’, ‘prophet’, etc.) is definitely interesting though. I’ve always loved how Muhammed received the ‘divine word’ (the old testament) some 2000 years after it was originally ‘received’ by the Jews.

    There’s something about walking through deserts, huh…

  • By Hezabelle, April 24, 2010 @ 11:54 am

    I don’t know about that… it did take like 2500 years for monotheism to really catch on. And isn’t it strange how every other religion before that was polytheist?

  • By Sebastian, April 24, 2010 @ 11:56 am

    And I’m sure it took a few years for polytheism to catch on too… :)

    It’s whatever’s taught from birth, basically — and whatever the king/emperor decrees.

    You could wipe out theism in a few generations… if you so wanted it…!

  • By Hezabelle, April 24, 2010 @ 11:59 am

    It’s true, they’ve proved you can do it with a culture in less than two generations, with residential schooling in North America…

    Come to think of it, that’s proof you can do it with a religion too!

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