“All Things are Full of Gods”, and Homer (and Hans Jonas)

I

In the world of Homer, it is difficult to think of anything that cannot be described as alive, from the highest power to the lowest impulse. The Homeric world restricts the title of “god” to something that is “deathless”, and this boundary between divinity and mortality cannot be crossed so as to make a mortal become immortal (V.440-442). Yet if we insist on the rigidness of this divide too strictly, we ignore the tissue of connections and participations between the deathless gods and mortal men.

The most obvious connections are through the half-god children of the sexual unions of gods and mortals (who receive special divine care, and mourning — the sons of Zeus and Ares, respectively). There are other connections, however, such as dream-visions (II.1ff.), prophets (who are given to “hear” divine speech [VII.53, clarifying the odd VII.44-45]), and especially through reciprocal gifts. These gifts include libation and sacrifice on the part of humanity (which secure protection, the failure to perform them making the gods wroth [V.177-178] even when such failure is merely due to human forgetfulness [IX.535-540]; the gods, it should be noted, take pleasure in these sacrifices [“savoring” the smell of them in I.66; IV.49; and, in a lesser sense, IX.500], and can even be said to “dine” on them [IX.535]). On the part of the gods, this reciprocity of exchanges can be seen in the “gifts” that they “lay on” people ([XIII.726-734, etc.] — for people are sometimes spoken of as godlike, and some are likened to the gods they have some symmetry with [II.169; III.16ff.; III.156-160; III.309; VII.47; VII.207-213; XV.603-606, etc.], and by which they are loved [so Aphrodite to Helen III.413-417]).

Focusing too hard on the divine-mortal spectrum, and the threads that connect the poles of it, overshadows not only the presence of divinity amidst mortality, but also occludes a feature of the Homeric world that it does not share with ours: the pervasiveness of life. In the increasingly rational environment that followed in the centuries after Homer, it is a short distance from presenting all things as full of life to Thales’ reported position that all things are modifications of water (the gods themselves come from Ocean in Homer), and Thales’ famous alleged statement that “all things are full of gods.”

II

To some degree, Homer presents us with the divinity of all things.

Zeus, who is overwhelmingly “Dios” (Διος) in Homer’s Greek (note the resemblance both to the Latin “Deus” and to the Greek word for God or a god, “Theos” [Θεος]), rules all things, and his will is always accomplished. History and the elements are either gods or expressions of the will of the Olympian gods (who, regarding battle, “hold the ropes of victory in their hands” VII.102). The gods have the most fluid bodies, and can take the shape of seemingly anything, examples on offer such as stars (IV.73ff.), birds (VII.58-62; XIII.62) and people (as Nestor II.20; as Calchas XIII.68-72; as simply “a man’s likeness” [ἀνδρὶ ἐοικώς] XIII.355-357, as Agenor XXI.600). (It should be noted that the gods seem –seem– to take only the likenesses of noble creatures, kingly creatures, in such creatures’ respective domains; in like manner, when a king is attacking in war in the Iliad, he is likened to a lion, or an eagle; when hunted, a boar. He is not likened to a snake, or a gopher, as these are not analogous to him in his domain as they are to other creatures in their domain.) With such bodies the gods can travel as fast as a human can think (XV.80-83). As they are subtle in body, it is worth noting that they are bodies, particular beings — the Olympian gods, after all, dwell “in the sky” (VI.527), and so unsurprisingly Zeus in particular is associated with weather phenomena appropriate to his domain of the sky (thunder and lightning), just as Poseidon is associated with weather phenomena associated with his domain of the sea, and Hades with things connected to death and night. Battle and strife and terror and rout are not moods or events, but gods, particular beings of this sort of supple body (Fagles’ translation, 160, 296); similarly, dreams are not mere dreams, but gods, the Oneiroi (Ονειροι), one of which is sent from Zeus to Agamemnon (II.1ff). Even a rumor (ὄσσα) is not a social-anthropological element, but a god — Rumor. (II.91-94) The gods of greater power dispose the gods of lesser power, and Zeus holds the reins of all, as his power is incomparable and greater than the sum of all other gods (VIII.17-27) — but not quite that of Fate, at least, not without complications (XVI.431ff.). 

III

Animals can be omens, effectively as much divine speech as astronomical and meteorological phenomena can be (VIII.245-252; X.274-277ff.; XII.200ff.; XIII.821ff. — though see Hector’s words at XII.234-243, climaxing in “Fight for your country — that is the best, the only omen!” [Fagles, 333]). Horses can be immortal, (XVI.154) and even mortal horses can be so glorious that wise and weathered men can be confused about whether such-and-such horses are mortal or immortal (X.543ff.). The heart (θυμός, sometimes translated as “life” or even “soul” or “spirit”) of a man, which seems to have its own urges and voices (“I must speak out what the heart inside me urges” VII.369), can be addressed in speech almost as though in prayer (Odysseus in XI.403ff. — Fagles has him address his heart with “O dear god”, but the Greek is simply “O my, …”), and the urges of a heart can be “fired” by a god (so Fagles’ translation of IX.703, which seems to have the impulse and the god merely synchronous in the Greek; XIII.59ff.).

IV

Every element can be a god. So Dawn in II.48-49 and XI.1; so the sun rising from the ocean is described with a sort of life in VII.421-423; the “great Ocean River” (ποταμοῖο ῥέεθρα Ὠκεανοῦ, XIV.245-246) gives birth to all immortals. Rivers are alive, and divine (so the divine river Scamander in XII.21; see also the fight between the god Xanthus/Scamander and Achilles in XXI, when the river god tires of the bodies Achilles is clogging him up with). The gates of heaven are guarded by the “hours” [Ὧραι] –Fagles has them as “Seasons” on p.244– in VIII.393-395; “the earth that nourishes us all” is a constant refrain (as Fagles has it); if the sky is figured as metallic, it is also figured as a ceiling, so that the world is like a house or a building — hardly a purely dead thing. Does not Hera swear an oath on Earth, Sky and the river Styx? [XV.35-38] –one does not swear an oath on what is lesser…

The darkness (σκότος) can “grip” a man as he goes down to death (XIII.672), to the “world of night” (Fagles translating Ἔρεβος, XVI.327), while primal night (Νὺξ, painting of her at this post’s header) “has power over gods and men” (XIV.259). This is the only passage in which Night is personified in Homer. It may mean simply that even the gods need to sleep (G.S. Kirk, J.E. Raven, and M. Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers, 2nd Ed. (New York: Cambridge, 2005), 17), but in Aristotle’s Metaphysics , he claims that Night may be primal in some early mythical poets, generating the gods. Of course, it is not Night, but Time/Cronus (Κρόνος, the personification of time) who generates the Olympian gods in Homer. Three of the four areas of the cosmos, and the elements of those three domains, are associated with Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades: each a son of Cronus. So Poseidon roars:

Three brothers we are, all sprung from Cronus, / all of us brought to birth by Rhea — Zeus and I, / Hades the third, lord of the dead beneath the earth. / The world was split three ways. Each received his realm. / When we shook the lots I drew the sea, my foaming eternal home, / and Hades drew the land of the dead engulfed in haze and night / and Zeus drew the heavens, the clouds and the high clear sky, / but the earth and Olympus heights are common to us all. [XV.187-193, Fagles 393-394]

As a postscript to the divinity of the elements, a note on their divine shimmering in the aftermath of sacrificial feasts and revelry: after the return of the girl Chryseis to her priest father Chryses, the offerings to Apollo and the ensuing feast, the next day the world was not only vibrant with divine color from Dawn, and the surf not only sang as the ship cut through it, but the things of the world were helpful god-sends for Odysseus and his crew as they returned to camp, the god-sent wind billowing in their sails. (I.475-483) In all of this, there are no universals, only particulars. (Achilles has honor, but this honor is not a form, but composed of particulars — at one point he calls the girl-prize Bryseis, whom he loves, “the prize I took”, which so strongly identifies her with his honor that Fagles simply translates it as that “he’s torn my honor from my hands” [Fagles, 263], etc.). Even the poem of the Iliad itself is the singing of a goddess about the rage of Achilles! (I.1; compare with XII.176) All of these particulars all have some degree or sort of –or measure of or relation to– divinity, even if those divinities are death and the underworld.

V

In some ways, this is because everything is full of some degree of life, which is also particular, associated with breath (ἀϋτμὴ, X.89; ἐμπνεύσῃσι XV.60). Even Hades (the god) is simply Ἀΐδης, one not (α) seen (ιδ), the corresponding state of humans in death being a whispy kind of life, since phenomenally the dead are no longer seen; and yet, the departed must be thought of as somewhere, because there are no universals. Something like this is happening in Iliad IV.429-431: “the ranks moved on in silence… / You’d never think so many troops could march / holding their voices in their chests, all silence” (οὐδέ κε φαίης / τόσσον λαὸν ἕπεσθαι ἔχοντ’ ἐν στήθεσιν αὐδήν). Their voices are not events that occur, but particular presences that simply hide within their chests when not manifest. Because they are considered as objects that merely retreat from presence, they hide within the chest; similarly the dead that are “un-seen” go to the House of Hades beneath the earth. Nothing in this world, a world where everything is full of gods, can really die; it can only diminish to a whisp of life. Even Cronus lies in a “bed of pain” in “the undermost limits of earth and sea”, in “Tartaros” (VIII.478-481). There can be a moral dimension to this, too — the friend who shows one thing for diversion, but conceals another in his heart, is “hateful as the gates of Hades” (IX.312-314).

Even life might sound like a universal, but here it is not; it seems to be a power seated in the blood, and the sort of blood one has seems to depend upon what one eats. So when Aphrodite is pierced and deathless ichor –not blood– flows from her in Iliad V.339-342, it is mentioned that the “blessed gods” do not eat food nor do they “drink of the shining wine”, and “so they are bloodless” and “so called deathless”. It is for this reason that the Achaean Diomedes, when addressing the Trojan Glaucus on the battlefield, asks who he is — Diomedes has not seen Glaucus before on the field, and Glaucus comes charging out suddenly. Diomedes is concerned that Glaucus may be a god, and Diomedes has “no desire to fight the blithe immortals. / But if you’re a man who eats the crops of the earth, / a mortal born for death — here, come closer, / the sooner you will meet your day to die!” (VI.141-143; Fagles 200)

VI

In such a world, history is the swell and press of such forces; it has no real beginning, it is an endless generation of lively beings in a surge of events that lead one to the other; thus the story begins at a point that is (in a sense) arbitrary: the Muse is told to “begin” here, at the beginning of a particular conflict, because, although she might have began anywhere, yet this beginning point is appropriate to the story the poet wishes to tell. This is a very different view of history than the Jewish and later Christian view of history, which has a beginning, all of history being the opening-up created by a tension between promise and fulfillment, between temple-as-cosmic-climax and divine enthronement and universal peace and justice (on the one hand) and the destruction of that temple and the sending into exile in slavery (on the other), the opening that waits for restoration, between fall and return, between nothingness and life.

Strength, life, and power are all aligned in this world — and divinity with them, if the power is immortal. History is moved by gods, more than men, because they have the greater power — and all things are moved by Zeus, because his power is the greatest. There are implications here for kingship.

This is different than the sort of “history” found in the Iliad. It is no coincidence that in Homer there are no universals (the closest one gets are the likenesses that obtain in the similes found throughout the Iliad), and that all things such as the dawn and rumors are gods: history requires causation, and explanation, and a god is simply seen, and not really accounted for. A god accounts for something by his or her suchness, and is not really accounted for. One submits to a god’s suchness. The press of the story of the Iliad may flow from conflict, but it is not really explained — like all things, it is suchness; like all things, it, too, has roots in the gods, and the gods begin it; like all things, it waits for universals, for forms; it waits, in the end, for Plato.

VII

The 20th-century philosopher and student of Martin Heidegger Hans Jonas has some helpful things to say on this matter, which I would like to connect both to disenchantment and to some of the existential crises we face today, given our models of the world. In his book, The Phenomenon of Life, Jonas writes about how when

man first began to interpret the nature of things –and this he did when he began to be man– life was to him everywhere, and being the same as being alive. Animism was the widespread expression of this stage, “hylozoism” one of its later, conceptual forms. Soul flooded the whole of existence and encountered itself in all things. Bare matter, that is, truly inanimate, “dead” matter, was yet to be discovered — as indeed its concept, so familiar to us, is anything but obvious. That the world is alive is really the most natural view, and largely supported by prima-facie evidence. [Life is everywhere in our world, and “dead matter” occupies very little space here.] Earth, wind, and water –begetting, teeming, nurturing, destroying– are anything but models of “mere matter.” [Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2001), 7]

Thus,

death, not life, calls for an explanation in the first place […]. […] If life is the natural and comprehensible thing, death –its apparent negation– is a thing unnatural and cannot be truly real. The explanation  it called for had to be in terms of life as the only understandable thing: death had somehow to be assimilated to life. The question it inspired faces backward and forward: how and why did death come into the world whose essence it contradicts? And whereto is it the transition, since whatever it may lead to must still belong to the total context of life? [Jonas, 8]

This is the result of a collision, a contradiction between the pan-vitalism of this early cosmology, and the presence of death.

Any problem is essentially the collision between a comprehensive view (be it hypothesis or belief) and a particular fact which will not fit into it. Primitive panvitalism was the comprehensive view; ever-recurring death, the particular fact: since it seemed to deny the basic truth, it had to be denied itself. To seek for its meaning was to acknowledge its strangeness in the world; to understand it was –in this climate of a universal ontology of life– to negate it by making it a transmutation of life itself. […] [B]eing was intelligible only as living; and the divined constancy of being could be understood only as the constancy of life, even beyond death and in defiance of its apparent verdict. [Jonas, 9]

It is important for us to see just how far we are from this world, how much of it has been siphoned off — and how much of it is ours again, such as worldliness, and the steady atrophy of other-worldliness (and yet, how far will this atrophy go? –the subjunctive mood is part of our linguistic and mental makeup, and a necessary one). There is no going back. We must move forward. It is important to note all this, however, before we look at how other figures, such as Plato and moreso Augustine, contributed further to the disenchantment of this picture.

5 thoughts on ““All Things are Full of Gods”, and Homer (and Hans Jonas)

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