Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Mythology Talk: Immortality and the Olympians

Hi, everybody! Did you miss me? Because I missed you!

Last week, we got the coolest present: a mythology question in the question box! We haven't gotten one of those in... well, a really, really long time, which makes sense, because we weren't able to answer them so understandably you folks weren't sending them anymore. But look! There it is! It popped up in my email and it felt like people were waving at me to come back and answer it. Look, here it is!

Question: Since so many gods can actually die, why are the Olympians the only well-known gods who are seen as both immortal and invincible/unkillable?

So I'm going to answer it, because I can do a blog this week and I was excited to see it, and the Olympian gods are a part of the landscape of the initial Hero's Journey setting so it's relevant to all of us!

A brief little distinction first - the Olympians are technically just the Greek gods who live on Mount Olympos as the major divinities, but the idea of immortal semi-invincibility in Greek mythology isn't confined only to them! Non-Olympian Greek gods - for example, the ocean deities like Proteus or Amphitrite, the underworld gods such as Hypnos and Thanatos, or the rustic pastoral gods like Priapos or Kybele that tend to run around various divine fields and landscapes - also fall under that heading. The Olympians get a lot more popular focus, since most of them had the largest cults and were the major figures repurposed for later Roman reuse, but technically all the Greek deities are just as immortal!

Honestly, this is a sociological question as much as anything else. Different gods come from different cultures, and different cultures and their religions have different concepts of divinity and different needs as far as the kinds of stories and ideas they want to talk about. As a matter of fact, the vast majority of gods across different world mythologies are not "truly immortal" - that is, most of them can be killed and sometimes are, in the myths of their home cultures, and some can even age and die on their own. Deities like the Mexica Huehueteotl are distinguished by the fact that they're old and suffer some of the ailments of old age, even if it took an unimaginably longer amount of time for him to age from the beginning of the universe to now, and other gods clearly fear death from accident or injury, such as when the Egyptian Ra almost dies of Wadjet's poison and calls for Isis' aid, or when Shiva kills his fellow Hindu death god Yama for disrespecting him and the resulting universal chaos caused by the god's absence forces everyone to resurrect and restore him before the world is irreparably damaged. The entire Norse canon is based around various gods' impending and inescapable demises. So clearly, gods dying is not an aberration worldwide; it's way more common.

The Greek mythological concept of gods as being eternal, unaging, and indestructible to the point that all their warfare even among themselves is designed to imprison or inconvenience each other to the maximum extent because there's no actual getting rid of them is pretty rare, although we tend not to notice it. If I had to guess, I'd say that we may not realize it because those of us in the western world are used to monotheistic religions like Christianity and Islam, in which the one central deity is also immortal without beginning or ending and completely unassailable and indestructible, so the idea of a god being indestructible just seems normal without further examination. (In fact, there's definitely scholarly discussion out there about Greek concepts of divinity as eternal and indestructible influencing early Christianity, but that's a whole other subject I definitely do not have room to mess with right now!)

So why did the ancient Greeks conceive of their gods as immortal super-beings who could never be destroyed, when their neighbors right next door in Mesopotamia and the Slavic and Celtic lands are writing epic tales about gods dying and being extremely upset about it? Well, culturally speaking, the Greek religion focuses a lot on a very clear line between the mortal and the divine: mortals cannot aspire to divinity, and deities can never be and never were mortals. The concept of hubris, unforgivable pride that causes humans to compare themselves to or disrespect the gods, is a huge theme in Greek myth, and the beloved stories of demigods with divine blood transcending what normal mortals could do just underlines how much humanity is confined to a level well below the gods. (In fact, the only cases of mortals becoming divine are those who already had the blood of gods in their veins, as opposed to various other cultures worldwide, where ancestors, skilled mortal heroes, and culturally important figures are regularly deified to represent how important they are or how lasting their impact is.)

So ancient Greek culture, with its emphasis on humanity and divinity being inseparably divided, makes the gods literally the opposite of fragile humanity: humans are mortal and age, gods do not, humans are fragile and easily injured and made ill, gods are not, and humans can be killed by mishap or violence, and gods cannot. Divine conflicts by nature don't look like human ones as a result, because gods aren't humans and Greek religion wants to make that very clear. It's worshipers' place to respect and worship the gods, and the gods' place to be worthy of that respect and, failing that, to at least be entertaining and educational in their enormous-scale screw-ups.

You'd probably need to be an actual anthropological scholar specializing in ancient Greek religion to have the full answer to this question, which is probably more nuanced than this post can be, but that's all the time I've got today. I'm waving at all y'all and hopefully I'll get to write more soon!

13 comments:

  1. Oh, awesome to see a new mythology blog post! I can remember reading these and being utterly enamored by them back in high school. They were a huge influence on me wanting to learn about mythology from an academic perspective, and now I am off for my Masters of Celtic Studies in September! Thanks so much for all the inspiration through the years Anne! (If you ever wind up doing some Tuatha for HJ and need a hand with things here or there, just let me know! I still have that delicious JSTOR access.)

    The Theoi 'True Immortality,' is something I really love, since it's sort of the best example of how exactly what being a Divinity means changes wildly from region to region. Just because we call a Dia, a Diva, a Teotl, and a Theoi all 'Gods/Goddesses,' doesn't mean they are the same 'thing' really. It's the same problem we have in history when we use the word 'King' to describe everything from a Irish Ri, to an Incan Inca, to Indian Raja.

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    1. This was such an amazing comment to come see - I am so glad to hear that! Good luck with your studies! That sounds like a fantastic field, and I'm already a little jealous. :)

      Yeah, comparative mythology is so fascinating that way - just because something is considered a divinity doesn't mean it has the same "rules" or perceptions in different cultures!

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    2. Tuatha? A bit off topic, but I do love me some Celtics.

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    3. Yeah, the Tuatha Dé Danann, the early medieval literary reconstruction/reimagining of a pre-Christian Irish Pantheon. They are a fun lot, simultaneously larger-than-life while still being intensely mortal.

      They probably weren't exactly as we imagine them, Brigid's fire associations are heavily drawn from Gerald of Wales who was a Lying-Liar-Who-Lied to justify a 'reinvasion,' of Ireland after the first wave of Norman nobility 'went native' for example. But, they are the best that can be done, and are a really fun Pantheon to play with in games like Hero's Journey. Their interactions with other Pantheons is always great. They tend to be the Pantheon that 'brings down the tone of the neighborhood' in my games in the eyes of other Pantheons. A Pantheon that got beat up by their mortals, with most of their 'Big Names' dead in a ditch somewhere. Good fun!

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    4. Look, if the Norse gods are allowed to all be on death row, clearly the Irish gods are allowed to get killed in impressively stupid ways for the Glory of It All.

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    5. Nah, I know the Tuatha fairly well. I always liked them, but never could really justify easily how the lineage would work out, particularly since they die then the next guy becomes king then die, etc. [Not accurate, but you get my point.] And despite the name Donner, I always loved the Dagda and if I had a 'Celtic patron' I would want it to be the good god himself (giant phallus and all).

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    6. Haha, yeah, the Irish and the Norse tend to get along pretty well due to their 'mortality problems,' in my games. And then the shared cultural traditions of feasting, poetry, and the like.

      What sort of challenges do you have with the lineage Donner? Like, working out who is currently Pantheon Head?

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  2. Good to have you back. And the post was entertaining and informative as always. ☺

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    1. Glad to be back, and glad you enjoyed it! :)

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  3. Just a general 'good to see ya writing' thanks for the blog.

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  4. Yay! It is so good to see you writing again Anne! :D We missed you. Take care Anne, and I hope to see more of your writing soon, as your health permits :) As always, I'm praying.

    Also, hooray for Heavens being awesome!

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    1. I missed writing so much, and also all of you! Thank you for the prayers and concern. :)

      It's encouraging when playtesters get mad about their past selves not having access to a fixed power. It usually means the changes were for the more exciting!

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