The Gods Vs. Man Essay, Research Paper
The Gods vs. Man
God. That one word has a lot of weight to it, doesn’t it? It had even more
significance to the Greeks. It was something they feared and respected. Throughout
history men have always wanted to be like the gods. It is something that is seen over and
over, man’s universal struggle to be like the gods. Is it man’s fault that he wants to be
like the gods? Or is it the gods’ fault? The story Oedipus Rex by Sophocles shows that
man’s arrogance and fallible personality is the cause of this struggle for superiority. The
Greeks dealt the most with gods, melding their daily lives with religion.
The Greeks have had multiple Gods over much of their history. The Greeks had
one of the most complex and extensive systems of religion and polytheism in the history
of man. They also had a very extensive hierarchy of Gods. Its origin begins with the
Chaos and a number of other Gods. There were 19 of them and they were called the
Titans. They were the creators and first rulers of the world. The Titans later went to war
with the Olympians and lost and were imprisoned in the center of the earth. There were
also lesser Gods and noble characters. There were 32 lesser Gods that were various
offshoots of the major twelve Olympians. They were given all types of minor jobs and
responsibilities in helping to keep the world organized and running. There were also
noble characters in mythology, who were classified into heroes and creatures. There
were fourteen heroes who completed many legendary tasks. Many were well known such
as Hercules, Perseus, Jason, Odysseus and many others. There were also fourteen
creatures that had many various roles, from killing people and animals to helping the
Gods. Most were also well known like Medusa, Cyclops, Sirens, and others.
More recently, during the time period of Sophocles, the Greeks believed in and
listened to the Olympians. There were twelve of these major Gods. These Gods directly
influenced the lives of the people of this time. They ruled all parts of people’s lives and
were the gods that the people prayed to and listened to. The following passage explains
the position of the gods:
Gaea created life, but that was life, which was reigned by a brute force. There was no prize for honesty, nor punishment for crime. Guided by their natural aspiration towards the order and ordered society wise men created immortal gods, who governed people’s lives, seeing and hearing everything, and enforcing the laws? The fear of such mighty gods forced the people to place them as far as possible, but also in beautiful settings in order to please them. So, the gods were placed at Mount Olympus and organized as a hierarchical society in which the “jet-set” consisted of twelve Olympian gods: Zeus, the supreme god, Hera, his lawful wife, Poseidon, Hades, Hestia, Aphrodite, Hermes, Athena, Hephaestus, Ares, Artemis and Apollo. Mount Olympus is placed on the borders of Macedonia and Thessaly. In the central place at Olympus there was Zeus’s palace with palaces of other great gods in the vicinity, and palaces of the less important gods further away. The gates of this city of gods were opening in the dawn and closing in the dusk. 1.
In Oedipus Rex there are three of these main gods, that figure in the story. The
first was Apollo, the son of Zeus and Leto. He was the god of music, playing a golden
lyre. He was the god of the archer, far shooting with a silver bow and the god of healing
who taught man medicine. He was the god of light and truth, who can not speak a lie.
One of Apollo’s more important daily tasks was to harness his chariot with four horses
and drive the Sun across the sky. He was famous for his oracle at Delphi. People traveled
to it from all over the Greek world to divine the future. Apollo was probably the most
important god in this play as he does the most to help Oedipus. In the beginning it is he
who tells Oedipus how to rid the city of Thebes of the plague, and he also tries to warn
both Oedipus and Laios of their fates, both of whom do not listen. The second god is
Athena, the daughter of Zeus. She was fierce and brave in battle but only fights to
protect the state and home from outside enemies. She was the goddess of the city,
handicrafts, and agriculture. She invented the bridle, which permitted man to tame horses,
the trumpet, the flute, the pot, the rake, the plow, the yoke, the ship, and the chariot. She
was the embodiment of wisdom, reason, and purity. Her favorite city was Athens and she
was a virgin goddess. It was to her that Oedipus prayed for the wisdom to do what is
right and to help him solve the puzzles. The third main god in the play was Artemis,
the daughter of Zeus and Leto. She was also the twin sister of Apollo. She was the
lady of the wild things. She was the huntsman of the gods. She was the protector of the
young. Like Apollo, she hunted with silver arrows. She became associated with the
moon. She was a virgin goddess, and the goddess of chastity. She also presided over
childbirth, which may seem odd for a virgin, but goes back to causing Leto no pain when
she was born. 2. She was the god that helped Oedipus hunt down the clues to the
mysteries that plagued him and his city.
These gods ruled people’s lives. Many actions that people did were centered
around the gods. The people lived their lives by the gods’ laws first and then by man’s
law for fear of upsetting the Gods. Although people didn’t have much physical contact
with the gods, their lives revolved around them. They had temples that they went to
every day to pray at, also each god had his or her own temple. Some demanded
sacrifices, others like Hestia, had a fire that was never allowed to go out. Either way, the
gods made their presence well known to the people, as seen in one example from Oedipus
Rex. The story opens with the city suffering a plague because the gods Athena and
Apollo were angry with the killer of King La?os. It was this direct interaction of the gods
with the people that made them so central to the people’s daily lives 3.
These gods played a direct role in just about every story written in this time
period. The authors of this time – Homer, Vergil, Hesiod, Euripides and others –
almost always mentioned some of the gods. This was to be expected seeing how the gods
were so central to everyday life. Sophocles was no exception to this rule, and the
influence of the gods is very clear in his story, Oedipus Rex. In this story alone, there are
three main gods with many more mentioned. This was done to help the audiences
connect with the play, to give the people something that they could relate to. It gave the
“common folk” a chance to go and enjoy these plays just like the educated class.
Sophocles lived from about 496 BC to 406 BC. He was born into a rich family at
Colonus near Athens. He lived during the golden age of Athens, during the flourishing
of the arts, philosophy, and architecture. He was elected as one of the military
commanders, a very prestigious position in Athens. He died during the Peloponneseian
war with Sparta. He wrote 123 plays, but only seven have survived. These seven are:
Ajax, Antigone, Oedipus Rex, Electra, Trachinian Women, Philocetes and Oedipus at
Colonus. He also won the drama competition in Athens over twenty times, beating out
his rivals. One of his major innovations was to complicate the conflict with three main
characters. Also he added three main gods into his work. Oedipus Rex was one of
Sophocles’s most involved works because he stretched the story over three plays. It was
his high education that gave him the edge in writing these stories.
The Greeks had many terms that were specific for drama, but one, hubris, applies
here. The direct translation of this word is insolence and pride. It is used to mean that
the hero forgets that he is a fallible man, attributes to himself the power and wisdom of
the gods, and is later humbled for his arrogance. This is very clear in Oedipus Rex a
number of times. Oedipus is guilty of this and one of the clearest examples is when he is
talking with Teiresias:
Has your mystic mummery ever approached the truth? When that hellcat the Sphinx was performing here what help were you to these people? Her magic was not for the first man who came along: it demanded a real exorcist. Your birds what good were they, or the gods for the matter of that? But I came by, Oedipus a simple man, who knows nothing and thought it out for myself, no birds helped
me! And this is the man you think you can destroy 4.
Oedipus shows that he holds himself above the gods. He alone is the only
one who can be right and do anything good. He puts himself above the gods and
prophets of the gods, saying that they did nothing to help the people, only he could stop
the Sphinx, once again showing the arrogance of the man. It is Oedipus’s anger, temper
and hubris that get him into trouble more than once. It is also these qualities that result in
Oedipus going into self-imposed exile at the end of the play.
Oedipus was not the only one who tried to go against the gods’ will. It really
began with Laios because he tried to prevent the first oracle from Apollo when he
abandoned Oedipus in the mountains. It was this act of tampering with fate that began all
of this tragedy. Laios tried to put himself above the gods, and to predict his own fate, and
that got him into trouble. It is his will that he not fulfill the oracle, but his fate draws him
along that same path anyway. The Greeks also believed in predetermination so Laios and
Oedipus really did not have a choice in preventing their oracles, even though they tried.
Oedipus was the type of person who needed to know at any cost. He did not
realize the personal consequences his hunt would have for him, and his “search for truth”
was based on his ignorance of it. The implications that would have come to light had
Oedipus avoided the prophecies of the gods, would have been that he was greater than the
gods. Had Oedipus proved the prophecies of the gods false, it would have put him in a
position that placed him higher than the gods. This would more than likely given the
people, and Oedipus, a lofty attitude that the gods aren’t what they are “cracked up” to be
and the mere men can defeat them. Oedipus while solving his mystery really did believe
that he defeated the god’s oracle when he was told that the king of Corinth had died. It
was his ambition to prevent this oracle from coming true that led him to run away from
home. Oedipus did not unselfishly seek out the truth even though he knew it would be
painful for him; rather, he had no idea what the outcome of his search would be, denied
the truth at every turn, and threatened those who spoke it (Teiresias) 5. Oedipus really
tried to prevent the god’s will and refused to accept his fate. This is ironic and shows that
Oedipus forgets himself because he himself says “But no man in the world can make the
gods do more than the gods will” 6.
Oedipus’s traits were honor, truth, but he also needed to prove himself. Oedipus
felt that he had to prove that he was worthy to lead his people. He felt that he had to
defend this “curse” that was put on the land because of King Laius’ death. He believed
that the individuals responsible for the king’s murder should be punished and nothing
would stop him from bringing them to justice. He was also a very truthful man. He was
very honest with those whom he loved, and with those who loved him. To his own
demise, he was a very faithful person because of his allegiance to his country. Towards
the end of the story, he knew he was treading on thin ice, but he continued to ask the
questions. He had probably already guessed some of the answers too. Since the country
already believed in almost everything that was predicted by the gods, for Oedipus to have
avoided his fate from gods would have caused great havoc. The people may have even
used it against Oedipus. Since no one had ever beaten the gods before, he may have been
looked at as a devil of some kind. If the prophecies had not come true, the people would
probably have lost trust in Oedipus because of some foul reason, which would have
resulted in the people disbelieving in him 7.
Now if it seems that the gods did nothing but disrupt people’s lives, they didn’t.
They also went out of their way to help man. They gave oracles and had prophets to
spread their message. There are a number of oracles mentioned in the story of Oedipus.
The first is the oracle from Apollo on how to get rid of the plague that was affecting the
city. The second is another oracle from Apollo that Iocaste tells of how La?os was to
die at the hands of his own son. The third is the famous Delphic Oracle that Oedipus is
given telling him that he will kill his father and marry his mother. Apollo was not the
only god known for helping man; others also gave oracles, even Zeus himself. This is to
show that the gods really did like man and did try to help him; it was just man who is
fallible and either tried to go against the gods or just refused to listen.
There were also prophets from the gods. In the story of Oedipus, there is
Teiresias, the blind prophet. He is the only one who seems to know what the gods know.
” The old man is a priest of Apollo? he is a man of art, whose blindness has brought him
insight unavailable to the more fortunate” 8. It was Teiresias alone who told Oedipus the
truth that he was looking for; it was not his fault that he wasn’t believed. The theme of
blindness comes into play with him. For only the blind man can see the truth, while
Oedipus who could see, was blind to the gods trying to help him. Although the gods
predict Oedipus’ fate, he acted as a free agent in actualizing it in his life.
As seen in the story of Oedipus, it was a mix of curiosity, not knowing when to give up, and arrogance that led Oedipus down the path to destruction. It was in the very beginning of the play that Oedipus was told by a prophet of the gods, what it was he searched for. The story of Oedipus is not the only case of man’s stubbornness and arrogance getting him in to trouble, there are many examples of this throughout history. It seems that man has nack for not listening to higher authority and
1 Milica Pty Ltd. “From Myth to Eternity.” April 1998
2 Mirza, Sumair; Tsang, Jason; Jenkins, Neil. “Olympian Gods.” 1997
3 Meiggs, Russell. The Athenian Empire. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972). p 46.
4 Sophocles. “Oedipus Rex,” in Literature: Reading and Writing the Human Experience, Eds. Richard Abcarian, Marvin Klotz and Peter Richardson. 7th ed. p 166. Other references refer to this text and are given in the paper.
5 Rollins, Kimberly. “On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex.” 1993
6 Sophocles, p. 174.
7 Davis, Marlon. “Questions on Oedipus Rex.” 8/8/98
8 Nussbaum, Martha. The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek tragedy and philosophy. p 75