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Greek Gods, “Big Gods” and Moral Supervision

Jennifer Larson

Kent State University

Evolutionary theory of morality holds that in order for cooperation to thrive among self-interested individuals, there must be a credible threat of punishment for breaking norms. Yet punishment is costly. Groups whose members believe in superhuman punishments thus gain an advantage, to the degree that trust is increased and the burden of scrutiny and punishment is lightened (Johnson 2005).

Ara Norenzayan’s much-discussed “Big Gods” theory (Norenzayan 2013) posits that the advent of “powerful, omniscient, interventionist, morally concerned gods” encouraged cooperation and deterred cheating as large-scale societies developed. Norenzayan pays surprisingly little attention to the gods of ancient polytheistic cultures, merely assuming the presence of “Big Gods.” In contrast, Baumard and Boyer (2015) state: “There is little or no evidence that people in these societies [ancient Sumer, Egypt, Greece, Rome, etc.] represented the gods as concerned with people’s own cooperative or prosocial behavior toward fellow members of their groups.” The Greek data provide a new perspective on the debate about moralizing gods.

The Greeks never spoke with one voice on the role of the gods as moral supervisors of human interpersonal relations; in particular, Homer and Hesiod differ in the degree to which they depict Zeus as a deity who is self-motivated to punish wrongdoing. In Homeric poetry, which appears to be closely related to popular belief, spontaneous punishment is limited to a narrow range of offenses involving ritualized relationships (Herman 1987, Auffarth 1992) and does not extend to the casual daily interactions of all individuals. Whereas Hesiod envisioned the possibility of spontaneous punishments for generalized wicked deeds (schetlia erga, e.g. Op. 238-9, 252-7), Homeric deities were self-motivated to punish only offenses against strangers, guests and (in the Odyssey) suppliants (Naiden 2006).

To elicit divine punishment of other forms of wrongdoing, it was necessary to attract the gods’ interest and to place the matter within their purview. One method was a direct prayer for justice, as in the case of Chryses in the Iliad, but the petitioner had to make a case as to why the deity should help (Versnel 1991, Kotsifou 2016). The oath (Sommerstein and Torrance 2014) can be understood as one of the first mechanisms by which interpersonal offenses were transformed into offenses against a god, in order to deter wrongdoing or secure the god’s help in exacting punishment. Moralizing thinkers like Hesiod maintained that Zeus sees all wrongs and punishes the culprits, but a widespread belief of this kind would have made oaths unnecessary. In this regard, I disagree with Andrej and Ivana Petrovic (2016), who argue that from early times, the gods were mind-readers concerned with moral purity. Rather, belief in “Big Gods” was a prescriptive, minority view in an ancient environment dominated by more intuitive concepts of divine intervention.

With the rise of the polis, the proliferation of sanctuaries offered plenty of scope to enlist the gods in moral policing. Examples of devices employed to “harness” divine power for this purpose include trade and banking conducted within sanctuaries, and sacral manumission (Sinn 1993). The use of sanctuaries as inviolable places of refuge for fugitives appears to be an evolutionary byproduct with limited value for the group, but substantial value for opportunistic individuals (Chaniotis 1996, Dreher [ed.] 2003, Traulsen 2004). Sacral asylum served a useful social and moral function, however, when sanctuaries were designated as refuges for slaves escaping abusive treatment. Sacral asylum in turn was repurposed and expanded during the Hellenistic period as a diplomatic tool, but with reduced ritual efficacy (Rigsby 1996).

Thus, the Greek data offer only limited support for Norenzayan’s claim that the earliest large-scale societies relied on deities to lighten the burden of moral enforcement and increase cooperation. While belief in “Big Gods” was a minority view in early polytheistic societies, worshipers gradually evolved strategies to expand the scope of the gods’ moral supervision.

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Greek Religion

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