11 May 2009

Greek religion and science

In Lecture 8 I expressed my doubts that the Greek religion played a major role in the development of early Greek science. A few months ago I bought an English translation of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey at a library clean-out sale and had an opportunity to read it during long hours in planes and airports on my way to Iran and back.

I received my high school education in a German Gymnasium, a place of study in the humanist classical tradition. Latin and ancient Greek were part of the fare, but we never made it to the study of Homer. So this was my first time to meet the famous poet - alas, not in his mother tongue.

I have never been fluent in ancient Greek. My doubt about its value for life had already surfaced during high school and had gelled a few years later when I had to register for conscription. The clerk had already taken down my personal details and proceeded with the form: "What languages do you speak?" "English, Latin and Greek." The clerk: "English and Greek", muttering the words as he wrote them. I protested: "English, Latin and Greek." The clerk, his eyes still on the form: "We record only living languages." I did not know any living Greek at the time. I have met some now, and some are my friends, but when they speak in their mother tongue I don't understand a word.

But an English translation of Homer is quite adequate when it comes to understanding the character of ancient Greek religion. All of us (or most of us) know that the ancient Greek had many gods and goddesses of different rang and purpose. What I had not appreciated before I read Homer is the strong animistic component of Greek religion. Every river, every mountain, every forest had its god or nymph, and unusual events of the natural world were invariably the result of decisions made by immortal beings. Take this scene from the Iliad:

Driven by a rage over the death of his closest friend, the hero Achilles wrecks havoc among the Trojan forces, who flee in panic. Many end up in a river, where Achilles continues to slaughter them, "and he would have slain yet others, had not the river in anger taken human form, and spoken to him from out the deep waters saying: 'Achilles, if you excel all in strength, so do you also in wickedness, for the gods are ever with you to protect you: if, then, the son of Saturn has vouchsafed it to you to destroy all the Trojans, at any rate drive them out of my stream, and do your grim work on land.'"

Achilles takes no note of the river god's request. What follows is a masterful description of a flash flood: "Meanwhile Achilles sprang from the bank into mid-stream, whereon the river raised a high wave and attacked him. He swelled his stream into a torrent, and swept away the many dead whom Achilles had slain and left within his waters. These he cast out on the land, bellowing like a bull the while, but the living he saved alive, hiding them in his mighty eddies. The great and terrible wave gathered around Achilles, falling upon him and beating on his shield, so that he could not keep his feet; he caught hold of a great elm-tree, but it came up by the roots, and tore away the bank, damming the stream with its thick branches and bridging it all across; whereby Achilles struggled out of the stream, and fled full speed over the plain, for he was afraid."

To this point the text could be read as a description of a natural event and the words "the river raised a high wave" taken as a poetic turn of phrase. But the next sentence leaves no doubt about who is acting here: "But the mighty god ceased not in his pursuit, and sprang upon him with a dark-crested wave." And a few sentences further on: "Even so did the river keep catching up with Achilles albeit he was a fleet runner, for the gods are stronger than men." (The Iliad, book XXI) This animistic view of nature is at par with the spirit world of Japan, for example. It cannot explain why the separation of science from religion occurred in Greece and not in far east Asia for that matter.

There are, of course, those who scoff at animism and oracles. In the Odyssey the estate of Odysseus is in danger of being ruined by a bunch of lazy layabouts who during his absence feast every day at his expense, killing the estate's oxen, goats and sheep. When they are confronted with a prophesy that the flight of two eagles is an indication of Odysseus' imminent return and unforgiving revenge, one of them says: "Go home, old man, and prophesy to your own children, or it may be worse for them. I can read these omens myself much better than you can; birds are always flying about in the sunshine one way or other, but they seldom mean anything." (The Odyssey, Book II) But in Homer's poem unbelievers are not men of stature but representatives of the bad party. What would be a statement of rational thinking when spoken by Hippocrates is in Homer's context only proof of wickedness.

It is difficult to see how such an attitude to nature could be fruitful for the development of scientific thought. The reasons for the separation of science from religion have to be found elsewhere. They have to be related to developments in society that widened the horizon of people and allowed a new view of the world to gain ground against the ingrained animism of Greek religion.

No comments: