Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Morality of the Gods

On the Yahoo Group One Eye (a Heathen list), we were discussing the morality of the Gods. I made a comment that sometimes the morality expected of Their followers is quite different than that which They live by.  As I put it, "I've known quite a few Hellenic Recon folks who honor Zeus: to the best of my knowledge none of them was a serial rapist." Understandably one Hellenic person took a bit of (polite) umbrage at my comment.  Certainly it seems disrespectful to call the All-Father and King of Olympus a "serial rapist." But if the available legends are any indication, it is not an inaccurate description of His behavior.  And there's no need to hold Zeus up for special scorn: the stories of most pantheons contain equally unpleasant tales of the Gods acting in ways which seem most ungodly indeed.

How do we deal with the less seemly aspects of our Lore: how do we reconcile our worship with the fact that our Gods sometimes do things which appear horrible to our moral codes? Do we gloss over those stories and sanitize our deities into something more palatable to modern tastes? Do we shrug our shoulders and say that might makes right?  Do we turn away from the Divine in terror and seek the comforts of atheism and anti-theism? Or do we engage with our Gods in their darkness as well as their light?

One possible answer might be found in Søren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling. In that book, the great Danish philosopher examined the Biblical Myth of Abraham.  He pointed out, quite correctly, that by any reasonable standard Abraham was a madman who was ready to kill his only son and burn the corpse because a voice in his head told him to do so. But then he also noted that sometimes the Gods ask for things which go beyond what we consider "reasonable." Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac showed that he was willing to follow God when He asked for that which was absurd, even forbidden.  His journey to the mountaintop was not something to be emulated but a sign of the sheer strength of his faith.

I would not encourage people to commit sexual assault in the name of Zeus, Odin, or any of the other gods who sometimes forced their attention on unwilling maids. Neither would I encourage them to dismiss these gods for their "unworthy" behavior. Rather, I would say that Here There Be Mysteries, and warn that those who would swim here are venturing into very deep water indeed.  The Divine does not always fit into the happy boxes we'd like to squeeze it in. Sometimes when we encounter the Gods we will run into that which is beyond our comprehension, indeed beyond our capability to comprehend.  Turning these Mysteries into comfortable moral lessons is not the point: neither is treating them as a carte blanche to act upon our own failings.