Religion in modern times is centered on the individual. The giant megachurches that host services every Sunday (or Saturday, if Sunday is a bit inconvenient) feature huge screens that show worshipers the song lyrics, so they don’t have to worry about finding the song in a hymnal. They show the Bible verse of the day, so worshipers don’t have to dig that Bible out and find it. The sermons, by and large, focus on ways that the information in the Bible helps people have more rewarding lives. Outside Christianity, the focus seems to be on ways to get yourself into nirvana or out of the harsh judgment of the afterlife through a series of actions. While the human’s function is hypothetically to worship, the actually tasks that the individual performs show that the focus is primarily on the self. The ancient Greeks viewed the world much differently, of course. Their gods did not create the world per se. They are not really interested in the destiny of humanity, unless it satisfies one of their own desires. When Zeus comes to earth, his motivation generally involves adultery and ends up spawning a demigod. When gods interfere in the affairs of humans, the usual purpose is to enact revenge on one another. In Medea and “Hymn to Aphrodite,” it is apparent that the Greeks viewed their gods as simply humans on a larger scale, in size, strength, appetite and arrogance.
In Medea, the idea is that the humans and the gods have no real connection, and that the inspiration for all human rage actually comes from injustice rather than spurring from divine forces. When Jason attempts to dismiss his wife, Medea, to take a wife of genuine royal lineage (Glauce), the scorn on Medea opens up a gateway to revenge and retribution. Unlike some earlier Greek works, the gods in Medea do not influence her actions, although they do assist her along the way. Medea is not one to wait for divine intervention when carrying out a plan of action; as soon as she finds a way to accomplish the murder of Jason’s new wife and Medea’s own children, she does it. Her purpose is to spite him and to turn everything that he has loved in life into ashes. While the gods do not necessarily provide any ethical approval for her actions, they give her a getaway car. As she rides off, she boasts, “Such a chariot has Helios, my father’s father, given me to defend me from my enemies” (ll. 1296-1297).
As Medea enters her chariot, taunting Jason with the corpses of their children, he begs not for her forgiveness but for her reckoning. He claims that the gods will surely punish her for her evil, asking, “May a fury for the children’s sake destroy you, and justice, requitor of blood” (ll. 1364-1365). However, the fact that Jason has broken his wedding oath appears, on this day, to have carried the gods’ favor, even though monogamy appears nowhere on the list of the virtues on Mt. Olympus. Medea has determined her own destiny and sought her own retribution. The gods of ancient Greece favor the bold and the decisive, and so Medea is not going to be subject to any discipline from them.
In Medea, then, there does not appear to any connection between the ruling powers of the universe and the basic tenets of human morality. While Jason’s abandonment of his wife is certainly unkind, it does not compare, in human terms, with multiple homicide, including the murder of one’s own children. The decisions that the gods make it clear that their own entertainment and their own personal satisfaction drive their decision-making, including their interventions into human history.
In Sappho’s “Hymn to Aphrodite,” the relationship between the ancient Greek gods and mortals appears in an even more morbid light. Instead of being the unwitting casualties in battles between the gods, humans appear to be toys with which the gods play. In the hymn, Aphrodite falls in love with the mortal prince Anchises from Troy. She bears him the son Aeneas, who would end up as a distant ancestor of the two founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, at least according to Latin tradition.
The hymn opens with praise for the only three gods whom Aphrodite fails to snare with her wiles: Athena, Artemis and Hestia. Then, the hymn moves to a discussion of Zeus, whom Aphrodite has tricked many times by joining him “in love with mortal women who bare sons of death to the deathless gods” (l. 50). Hercules was the fruit of just one of these many matings. Zeus turned the trick around by casting “sweet desire” on Aphrodite “to be joined in love with a mortal man” (l. 45), and so when she sees Anchises tending his cattle, she falls in love with him. She puts on all of her fragrances and jewelry and heads to Troy, and when she shows up, Anchises behaves as any other mortal would in the presence of the goddess of love: he is simply overcome with passion. He believes he is in the presence of a goddess and asks for a blessing. However, she claims to be a mortal woman who wants to marry him, and so she takes him to bed.
After awakening, Anchises realizes what he has done and asks for pity on the gods. Because he is “dear to the gods,” though, his son is to reign among the Trojans (l. 193), and Anchises takes Aphrodite at her word. The rest of the poem talks about other instances in which gods have come to earth and carried off or seduced men for their own personal gratification.
Euripides, Medea. https://records.viu.ca/~johnstoi/euripides/medea.htm
Sappho, “Hymn to Aphrodite.”