Disqualified Olympians: The Skeptical Greek View of Divine Judges
Mermerlstein & Holtz, eds., The Divine Courtroom in Comparative Perspective (Brill 2014)
Posted: 7 Feb 2016 Last revised: 16 Mar 2016
Date Written: January 5, 2014
Greek literature and legal practice exhibit a reluctance, bordering on refusal, to deem the Olympian gods as fit judges, either of themselves or of humans. Although there is an occasional word of praise, the gods are routinely portrayed as preoccupied with advancing their own interests, and notably petulant over perceived slights to themselves. In Aeschylus’ mythical account of the creation of Athens’ first court, Athena declares herself incapable of judging the defendant, a mere mortal, without human jurors to help her. Respectable divine agents of justice are almost always figured as abstractions (“Themis” or the spirits in Hesiod), named, not portrayed with any specificity, devoid of personality — not to speak of judges who have decided a specific case in a specific way.
Perhaps reflecting this ambivalence about the quality of divine judging, Athenian courts were conceived of as predominantly mortal affairs. To be sure, traces of divine participation can be seen, for example, in the use of oaths and the process of juror selection. But despite the ubiquity of religious symbols and rituals in Athenian life, Athenian jurors did not, for the most part, seek the assistance of the divine or draw legitimacy from the involvement of the gods in their decisions.
This pessimistic view of the gods as judges is not merely a byproduct of anthropomorphism, for the Greeks imagined the gods not merely as flawed humans, but as lacking the seriousness mortals acquired precisely as a consequence of their impending death.
Keywords: Athens, Greek History, Legal History, Religion
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