c. 350 BC
Hermes with the infant Dionysus
by John Lauritsen
Service conducted by John Lauritsen
at the UU Meeting House in Provincetown, 23 May 1999.
In this Meeting House people of
different faiths and different outlooks come together in fellowship.
In my mini-sermon last March I compared
the Unitarian Universalist model to a “theological smorgasbord”.
Perhaps a better comparison would be to the Pantheon in Rome, a temple
dedicated to all of the gods.
This building is a fine example of Greek
Revival architecture. So it is an appropriate place for another kind of
Greek Revival: the Olympian religion, the gods of Homer. I'll briefly
introduce what Walter Pater called the “graceful polytheism” of Ancient
Intellectually I am a Freethinker or a Secular Humanist. But in my
heart I am a Pagan, one who reveres the ideals and gods of ancient
I've been in love with Greece all my
life. As a small boy I was entranced by the Greek myths, and read every
book I could find on them. I became keen on Astronomy, and learned the
constellations, so I could see my heroes up in the sky.
In junior high school I read the Iliad,
in a prose translation. I was thrilled by the battle scenes —
laughed over the antics of the Olympian gods and wept over the death of
In my freshman
year at college I studied Ancient Philosophy under Raphael Demos, a
great Plato scholar and a great teacher. The reading list was simple:
all of Plato's dialogues, the major works of Aristotle, and Lucretius' De
In my sophomore year I took a course on The Classical Tradition in
Western Art, which in addition to architecture studied a lot of male
nudes. On the side I read John Addington Symonds' A
Problem in Greek Ethics, which is still, more than
a century after it was written, the best treatment of male love in
Oddly, I felt as though I were coming home. The world of the Greeks
almost three millennia ago seemed far more natural and congenial to me than the
United States of the mid-20th century.
philosophical, political, scientific, legal, and artistic foundations
of Western Civilization were erected in Athens. We pay tribute to Greek
ideals: respect for the freedom of the individual, the pursuit of
physical and intellectual excellence, and so on.
But Greek religion is not taken seriously. We have a cultural prejudice
against polytheism. Greek religion lacks those properties found in
Christianity and other religions that originated in Asia Minor. And
Greek religion contains humor, which seems inappropriate.
Some think of Greek religion in terms of the Mystery cults, like the
Eleusinian. However, little is known about them. Millions of people
were initiated into the mysteries, but the specifics of the services
are unknown. They remain mysteries. It was said that after initiation
into the Eleusinian mysteries, one was no longer afraid of death.
A different approach — that of Walter
Otto in his splendid book, The Homeric Gods
— is to take the Olympian deities seriously. I do, and shall now
introduce them, although I'm sure they're here already. I'd expect the
Olympians to be popular in Provincetown, as they are eternally young
and beautiful, and they have charm. As I'm not sure of the exact order
of precedence, I'll describe them in alphabetical order.
APHRODITE (aph ro dye' tee)
Daughter of Zeus. Goddess of Love. She presides especially over
seduction, sexuality, and procreation.
of Zeus. God of reason, moderation, light, healing, purification,
prophesy, music, poetry. When a man's time is up, the time allotted him
by the Fates, he is slain by Apollo, who deals death from far away.
ARES (air eez)
Son of Zeus and Hera. God of War. He is disliked by some of the other
gods, but Aphrodite is keen on him.
of Zeus. Goddess of the Hunt. Of chastity. Lady of Wild Beasts. The
goddess that roves by night. Protector of women in childbirth. A
counterpart of her brother Apollo, she slays women from far away when
their time is up.
Daughter of Zeus. Goddess of War
and of Wisdom. A serious goddess, her salient attribute is good common
sense. Although a virgin, she is friendly to men and a good goddess to
have on your side.
DEMETER (di meet' r)
Daughter of Cronus and Rhea. Goddess of the harvest. Mother of
Proserpina (pro serp' in a), Queen of the Underworld.
DIONYSUS (dye o nye' sus)
God of wine and intoxication, of ritual madness and ecstasy, of theater.
HEPHAESTUS (hi fest' es)
The crippled son of Hera. God of fire, of blacksmiths and artisans.
Married to Aphrodite, but cuckolded by Ares.
HERA (Hir' a)
Queen of the gods. Daughter of Cronus; sister and wife of Zeus.
Exemplar of marriage and royalty.
HERMES (Her' meez)
of Zeus. A god who is friendly, playful, and mysterious. Messenger of
the gods. God of commerce, music, medicine, eloquence. Protector of
travellers, scholars, shepherds, and thieves. When someone dies, Hermes
takes him by the hand and escorts him to the Underworld.
POSEIDON (Po sye' dn)
Brother of Zeus. God of the sea, earthquakes, and horses.
most powerful Greek god. Known as “Father Zeus”, “The
Thunderer” and “All-seeing Zeus”. A god of justice. A
defender of kings, but also of strangers, suppliants, and beggars.
These twelve comprise the Olympian family, the gods of Homer, who first
appear (in surviving literature) in the Iliad,
and the Homeric hymns — about 28 centuries ago. In years
following — in poetry, philosophy, drama, and art — each of
them acquired additional attributes and functions, but retained
essentially the same personality.
religion is natural and objective. It is consonant with the Greek
spirit: noble, clear, simple, strong, straightforward. It is opposed to
everything that is cheap, affected, muddled or weak.
In Greek religion there is a remarkable absence of magic words, magic
gestures, empty rituals, exotic and showy priestly robes, or hypnotic
When a Christian prays, he does
so on bended knees, with head bowed and eyes closed. The attitude is
one of submission, as before an Oriental despot.
In contrast, when an ancient Greek prays, he does so with head upraised
to the sky and arms uplifted. The attitude is one of pride, joy and
alertness — at the same time, with reverence to the deity.
Greek prayers get to the point. The Trojan women pray to Athena to help
them. Athena hears their prayer and refuses it.
Achilles prays to Father Zeus that his friend and lover, Patroklos, may
do glorious deeds in battle and then return safely to camp. Zeus hears
the prayer; he grants the first half and refuses the second.
Greek gods have a characteristic way of intervening in human affairs.
In the beginning of the Iliad,
Achilles is in a rage. He has been
gravely offended and his honor is at stake. Unless he can check his
anger he will kill Agamemnon, the commander-in-chief of the Greek
forces. At that moment Athena soars down from heaven, and seizes
Achilles by his golden hair. With eyes blazing Athena commands him to
check his temper, and promises him generous rewards to make up for the
insult. Achilles obeys, and thrusts his sword back in its sheath. No
one but Achilles has seen the goddess.
tell an episode from my own experience. Many years ago I visited
Sparta. On the outskirts of town, on a mountainside, is Mystra, an
ancient Byzantine city, remarkably preserved. By the end of the
afternoon I reached the topmost part of Mystra, and came to a narrow
path leading up the mountainside to a citadel on the top. No other
tourists went up the path, but I did. As I was getting near the top I
was seized by an attack of vertigo. I looked over the side and was
terrified to see that it was a sheer drop for several hundred yards.
Normally I'm not afraid of heights; in fact, I enjoy them. But then I
was helpless. Before leaving Sparta I had eaten a dessert full of
honey, and this apparently was causing an attack of hypoglycemia. My
legs wouldn't support me. I sat down, my back against the mountainside,
clutching a bush for support. I sat there for a long time, not knowing
what to do. Then I prayed to Hermes, protector of travellers.
Immediately the god manifested himself — in the form of a couple
of tourists, who came bounding up the path. Middle-aged, plump and
jolly, they were certainly not afraid. I explained my predicament.
Since they were German they assumed that I, having gone that far, would
want to climb to the top, and they offered to hold my hands. As soon as
we started up, the man ahead of me and the woman behind, the dizziness
vanished. I stayed for a long time in the citadel. The view was
awesome. And when I went down alone, my legs were steady.
So you see, the old gods still answer
And the Greek gods will live, as long as there exist: nature, humanity,
and people with a classical education.
we worship them? The question really gets down to: How do we live? John
Addington Symonds suggests that we follow the Greeks by being
“natural”. In The Greek Poets he
will always be found ... to whom Greece is a lost fatherland, and who,
passing through youth with homesickness for that irrecoverable land
upon them, may be compared to visionaries, spending the nights in
golden dreams and the days in common duties. Has then the modern man no
method for making the Hellenic tradition vital instead of dream-like
— invigorating instead of enervating? There is indeed this one
way only — to be natural: we must imitate the Greeks, not by
trying to reproduce their modes of life and feeling, but by
approximating to their free and fearless attitude of mind. To do this
in the midst of our conventionalities and prejudices, our
interminglement of unproved hopes and unrefuted terrors, is no doubt
hard. Yet if we fail of this, we lose the best the Greeks can teach us.
Goethe expresses the Hellenic ideal in a couplet:
Im Ganzen, Guten,
Resolut zu leben
(To live with steady purpose in the
Whole, the Good, the Beautiful.)
Our universities, when they were closer to the classical ideal,
emphasized the “pursuit of excellence”, both physical and
Hellenism is not for everybody. But for
those who are sympathetic, I suggest three things:
1. Learn more about our classical heritage. A visit to the classical
collection of the Boston Museum. Reading the Iliad
and Odyssey, the
dialogues of Plato, the great tragedies.
2. Pursue excellence by making the best
3. In the phrase of the Hellenist
philosopher, Nietzsche: “Say YES to life.”
We will now have a moment of silent
I'm going to read a philosopher's prayer. It was given by Socrates at the end of Phaedrus, one of Plato's two great dialogues on Love. And remember, this is a pagan prayer, so it's all right to keep the eyes open.
On a hot summer day Socrates and his friend Phaedrus have walked into
the country on the outskirts of Athens. By the riverbank, in the shade
of a large plane tree, they discuss rhetoric, truth, and the willing
constraints of Love. This dialogue has one of the most profound and
famous symbols in literature, that of the Charioteer. On the left of
the chariot is the unruly dark horse of passion and sensuality; on the
right is the noble light horse of modesty and reason. Both are
commanded by Love as the Charioteer of Souls.
Towards evening the heat has begun to let up, and Socrates and Phaedrus
decide to return to Athens. The dialogue concludes:
SOCRATES: Should we not offer up a prayer first of all to the local deities?
PHAEDRUS: By all means.
Pan, and all ye other gods who haunt this place, give me beauty in the
inward soul; and may the outward and inward man be at one. May I reckon
the wise to be the wealthy, and may I have such a quantity of gold as a
temperate man and he only can bear and carry. — Anything more? The
prayer, I think, is enough for me.
PHAEDRUS: Ask the same for me, for friends should have all things in common.
SOCRATES: Let us go.