Nike, goddess of victory, has emerged in our time as the greatest celebrity among all the Greek divinities. On the streets of every city, sweaty worshippers proclaim their love on T-shirts and shoes. Nike was always impressive: Look at her as the Winged Victory of Samothrace, a don't-miss-this stop for every tourist in Paris who gets to the Louvre. Still, she was hardly in the top rank.
She was an attendant of Zeus, the chief god, and now she's eclipsed him in every gym in the world. Zeus doesn't even have a line of underwear named after him. She's made him an also ran. For his sake we can only hope that, as Christians argued while eradicating paganism, Zeus never existed in the first place.
This month the Olympics remind us that we are linked, now and forever, to the Greeks. For one thing, they invented what we know as organized sports. They drew up rules, determined that events should be repeated according to a schedule, and gave athletes the heroic status otherwise granted only to warriors. Modern promoters have added a few details, like TV and corporate sponsorships. Otherwise, the system was there, created by the Greeks, and we still celebrate their achievement.
The world that produced the original Olympics is still with us, first of all in our language. When we call someone a narcissist we acknowledge Narcissus, the beautiful youth who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool. The late George Grant, the Canadian philosopher, was among those enthralled by the Greek gods. He considered Christianity a rather pallid substitute for the Olympians. Interviewing him one day in the 1960s I asked about his own personal connections with religion. He acknowledged that he attended the local Anglican Church, but it clearly didn't stir his soul. As he said, "I can hardly worship Athena [the goddess of wisdom and culture] in Dundas, Ontario." On another occasion Grant employed the most famous Greek-derived formulation when discussing his own emotional life: "I have an Oedipus complex as big as a house."
The Olympics were born into a god-haunted, hero-saturated world. The Greeks were brilliant thinkers, cruel slave masters, magnificent sculptors, ruthless warriors and the inventors of democracy -- all this under the sway of gods lacking in what we call godliness.
Greek gods were like human beings, only worse -- jealous, vengeful, sexually wanton. Incest, patricide and infanticide were part of their chronically dysfunctional families. Sex infected them with creepy and perverse notions. For some reason Zeus's decision to disguise himself as a swan when seducing Leda, the Queen of Sparta, appealed not only to Leda but to many of Zeus's earthly followers and, worse, to generations of painters who found this grotesque image appealing. No one has yet come up with a name for Zeus's form of sexual abuse but a tour of European museums reveals the harm that one twisted idea did to art history.
This level of eccentricity aside, Greek mythology was surely the most impressive collective work in the history of culture. It involved countless ballad singers and village storytellers, amassing over hundreds of years some thousands of stories about the deities living on Mount Olympus. The result was a free-wheeling, spontaneously invented religion without a single authoritative book for guidance. It was a religion of rumours and hearsay and tall tales.
The myths of Greece were impressive on their own but established their permanent value to humanity by flowing into Greek drama. Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus and the rest reshaped this endless reservoir of narrative into plays. In the process they invented the dramatic tradition of the West, a tradition that now stretches from Shakespeare to the least impressive TV sitcom.
Over the centuries the myths have led to Monteverdi's opera, Orpheus, 400 years ago, and Philip Glass's opera Orpheus, 15 years ago. They've inspired Racine, Mozart, Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams and the young American playwright Sarah Ruhl, whose own version of a modern-day Eurydice was performed two years ago in New York.
All this springs from the riches of ancient Greece. But while the Greeks were accomplishing a literary and dramatic miracle and more (the world's best sculpture, for instance), they thought they were living in a run-down, decrepit era. They believed a Golden Age once existed, long before their time, when Greece knew true grandeur. Living in the most golden of ancient ages, they didn't know it. These shrewd and inventive humans, like most people since, were totally unable to judge their own time on Earth.