Advent, Hercules, and the End of the Olympian Gods

As we advance through Advent, we recall the darkness of the world before Christ arrived. While Israel clung, sometimes by a  thread, to the Law and the Prophets, most of the world dwelt in the darkness of paganism. My academic background is in the Greek and Roman classics, and you see the disordered passions and anxieties of these peoples projected onto their gods (or, if you prefer, these gods were demons inspiring disordered passions and anxieties among their worshippers).

Two of the most comprehensive instantiations of Greek myth are Hesiod’s Theogony and Homer’s Iliad. The Theogony focuses on the problem of generational conflict. As Chaos begets monsters and primordial forces, which produce Titans, which produce gods, each generation overthrows the one before. At last, Zeus rises supreme among the Olympian gods and establishes a new order. However, this regime rests on violence. The overthrown Titans are chained in the underworld, and Zeus wields his thunderbolts to suppress uprisings.

The narrative of the Theogony peters out with tales of gods and goddesses mating with mortals to produce heroes. Many of these tales prove tragic for the mortals involved, and sometimes even for the gods. Zeus’ wife Hera is often irate with him over his dalliances with mortal women, and his offspring suffer her wrath. As I will relate below, the Trojan War arises over questions of gods and mortals mingling, siding with their offspring against other gods’ offspring, and bringing the chaos of war to Olympus. Homer’s Iliad shows Zeus trying to maintain his rule in the face of this conflict.

For example, the goddess Thetis pleads for help from Zeus on behalf of her mortal son Achilles. After all, it was Thetis who had saved Zeus when the other gods temporarily banished him from Olympus. He owes her a favor. In the end, Zeus’ cosmic order rests on a combination of violence and trading on favors. It’s a constant re-negotiation. And who’s to say what might finally unleash the forces of chaos and overthrow Zeus? While the Greeks tried to avoid contemplating this, their Indo-European cousins in Germany and Scandinavia foresaw the overthrow of their own pantheon, the Aesir, in a final battle.

I once drafted a mythological schema in which the narratives of Hesiod’s Theogony and Homer’s Iliad find their upshot in the birth of Rome.* In turn, Rome (with the coming of Sts. Peter and Paul) overthrows the pantheon of Olympus, whose apologist is Simon Magus. The centerpiece of this schema was the Labors of Hercules (I’ll use the more familiar Roman form instead of his Greek name, Heracles). Here’s how the Labors of Hercules and their side-labors (the so-called parerga) help set the stage for the Trojan War and foundation of Rome:

1.) Hercules slays the Lernaean Hydra. Decades after Hercules’ death, Troy falls only after his former companion Philoctetes shows up with Hercules’ bow and shoots Paris with arrows dipped in the Hydra’s poisonous blood.

2.) Hercules destroys Troy the first time. He kills King Laomedon and all of his sons except Podarces, who is re-named Priam. So Hercules brings Priam to the throne and sets the stage for the final destruction of Troy, the flight of Aeneas to the west, and the eventual foundation of Rome.

3.) Hercules meets Prometheus bound in the Caucasus Mountains. Prometheus was one of the Titans who had defied Zeus. Zeus responded by chaining him to a rock in the Caucasus Mountains where an eagle ate his liver everyday, only for his liver to grow back again. But even in his torture, Prometheus held a bargaining chip: he knew a secret prophecy that might save Zeus’ reign or end it. Prometheus shares this prophecy with Hercules: the son of the goddess Thetis will be greater than his father. Hercules unbinds Prometheus in return and relays the prophecy to Zeus, who had desired Thetis. Instead of sleeping with Thetis and fathering a son who will overthrow him, Zeus marries Thetis off to Peleus, a mortal. This sets up the Trojan War in two ways: a.) the hero Achilles, champion of the Greeks at Troy, is born of the union, and b.) Eris shows up at the wedding with the Apple of Discord, which leads to the Contest of Paris and Paris’ abduction of Helen. Through Achilles and Paris, the Wedding of Peleus and Thetis has a cascading effect that levels Troy, founds Rome, and topples the Olympian pantheon. Zeus fails despite his best efforts.

Interestingly, Prometheus had once consoled Io, Hercules’ ancestress. Io was a mortal woman whom Zeus wished to seduce. Hera unleashed her anger against Io, turning her into a cow. Prometheus consoled Io by prophesying the birth of the greatest hero ever, Hercules, from among her descendants. Eventually Io did mate with Zeus, leading to a great lineage of heroes, including future children of Zeus like Perseus and Hercules (himself a victim of Hera). Perhaps I could cast the central prophecy as a conspiracy between Hercules and Prometheus to enact revenge on Zeus for his immoral rule and the persecution of Io. Prometheus and Hercules would intentionally set up the Wedding of Peleus and Thetis for the destruction of the gods.

4.) Hercules travels to the west, where he drives the cattle of Geryon through the future site of Rome. He kills the monster Cacus, thereby leaving Rome inhabitable for future generations.

This is the type of blog post you write when you’re re-watching “Clash of the Titans” on Netflix.

*For what it’s worth, Ovid’s Metamorphoses takes the mythic narrative all the way down from the theogony through the heroic age and Trojan War to Rome’s founding and even Julius Caesar and his adopted son Augustus. Ovid (43 B.C.-17 A.D.) wrote the Metamorphoses during Our Lord’s mortal lifetime. Fittingly enough, the final canonical A-Z account of the Olympian gods was published a few scant years before Our Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection and the Descent of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost. Men and women who bought first editions of the Metamorphoses likely heard St. Peter and St. Paul preach.

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