Often we think of the gods as little more than the personifications of abstract concepts and elemental forces, which is a topic that we’ll discuss in depth in our forthcoming series on the creation of the universe. However, there are a few misconceptions about the gods that Dionysus needs correcting before we get onto that subject. I’ll say this much to start: everything you know about the gods is probably wrong. Time to explore!
Let’s begin by talking about how we define our gods, because honestly that seems like a pretty damn important place to begin. If you ask someone today what might make a god different from, say, that asshole Steve down in accounting, they’d be quite likely to say that a god wields all kinds of amazing supernatural powers while Steve just sits in his chair, typing numbers into Excel spreadsheets and telling the boss when you’ve been drinking on the job again.
The Greeks would have wholeheartedly agreed that Steve can go eat a bowl of unwashed dicks, but their take on the gods was slightly different: the gods were not defined by their powers, but by their immortality.
If we’re discussing the nature of the gods (and we are!), the logical question is what makes the gods immortal in the first place. There are two answers. The short answer is that it’s in their blood. The gods are very similar in structure to normal human beings, but one of the differences between us is that their veins contain a substance called “ichor” instead of blood. Today, that word conjures up the image of something poisonous, stinky, and otherwise gross. This is because stupid alchemists repurposed the word; originally, ichor was simply the word for the blood of the gods, and had no negative connotations. Ichor performs roughly the same function as our blood, but it is the substance that grants the gods their immortality. Instead of being red like our blood, ichor is apparently golden in color.
However, I’ve already noted that the gods are physiologically similar to humans, so if their blood was a different color it should be obvious just from looking at them. They look normal enough, which raised my suspicions that there might be more going on here. After a little digging, I discovered two aspects of gold (the metal) that makes me think that ichor being golden may actually have nothing to do with its color.
Gold is unique among metals in that it simply does not oxidize. Leave any other metal out in the elements and it will degrade over time – iron, for example, will become solid rust after a while. This doesn’t happen with gold; a thin layer of tarnish will form on it eventually, but this is due to an accretion of dirt and such on the surface of the gold rather than any chemical change in the metal itself. Leave some gold out for a thousand years, wipe off the dirt, and assuming nobody found it or crushed it in the meantime, it will be exactly the same as it was when you left it.
It is also extremely rare, relative to other metals.
So what does this have to do with blood and ichor? Well, in a recent and well-publicized experiment, scientists think they’ve discovered one of the causes of aging. Now, you all know that I’m not a huge fan of this science bullshit. I already know why we age: Geras. He exists, and that’s the end of it. I almost dismissed this study the same way that I dismissed other well-known hoaxes like “climate change”, “evolution”, and “gravity”; but, a small child explained that the scientists found that our blood changes over the course of our lives, which in turn causes us to age.
Something about the way the child explained it made things click: assuming that the golden color of ichor is actually a metaphor, it could be telling us that ichor does not change over time like our blood does. If Geras cannot alter ichor, it would make the gods effectively immune to aging. Also, it could just be telling us that this ageless ichor is extremely rare. Given that humans are far more numerous than the gods, this theory also makes a little bit of sense.
Most of the time, if you hear someone talking about what a thing “represents”, you can be sure that they’re talking out of their ass. That, or there’s an English teacher around who they’re trying to sleep with (nothing gets English teachers all hot and bothered like unnecessary symbolism). So, it’s entirely possible that ichor is simply golden in color. I asked Dionysus if I could cut him a little to test this, but I blacked out before I could shank him. When I eventually came to, I was in the middle of a jailbreak in Tijuana.
Note to self: never try to mug a god.
The other widely accepted source of the gods’ immortality lies in their food and drink, which is different from the food and drink of us mortals. These are called nectar and ambrosia, and although which one is the food and which one is the drink is a matter of debate, what all sources agree upon is the properties that these edibles share: other than being delicious, they smell extremely good and they have purification properties: Hera uses them to wash “defilement” from her body (in other words, they return her youth and virginity) and it is used on Penelope to make her young and beautiful again. Most telling, Athena gives both nectar and ambrosia to Heracles upon his ascent to Olympus. Eating them turned his mortal blood into ichor, and he officially joined the ranks of the gods.
So ichor makes the gods immortal, and nectar and ambrosia convert blood to ichor while returning youth and purifying the body. Kind of explains why Zeus freaked out when Tantalus stole some, doesn’t it?
But I’ve prattled on long enough about immortality itself, so let’s go back to the whole thing about powers.
We seem to have this strange idea that the gods’ powers only apply to those things that are within their spheres. Athena is the goddess of wisdom and courage, so she’s great if you’re defending your city from assault, but she’d be totally useless if you were trying to get laid, right?
This is a massive misunderstanding. In order to fix it, we need to go all the way back to the war against the Titans.
After their victory against Cronos and pals, Zeus and his two brothers drew lots to determine who got which domain. Zeus got the sky, Poseidon the seas, and Hades the underworld. They wield ultimate power over their domains: Zeus wields the mighty thunderbolt while riding on clouds, Poseidon has a trident and causes earthquakes from his underwater lair, and Hades was dark and brooding before Batman made it cool. Also, he carries a bident, which is like a trident but with the middle prong removed. It looks almost exactly like what you’re picturing now. The rest of the gods then assumed their respective roles based on their personalities and interests.
But let’s back up a minute. Re-read this until it sinks in:
They drew lots.
That’s right: when determining who was in charge of what, the three most powerful gods did the ancient equivalent of pulling slips of paper out of someone’s hat. It’s entirely possible that Hades could have been the god of the sky. Poseidon could have lorded over the dead. Zeus could easily have been the Little Mermaid’s grandfather.
The logical conclusion is this: all of the gods, big and small, have the exact same powers. The only thing that’s different is how they choose to use them, and this is based entirely off of their own personalities.
Aphrodite is an amorous nymphomaniac, so it’s only natural that she would act as the goddess of love and sex. She’s perfectly capable of giving you some help in combat if you ask, but since she’s all about pretty things and O-faces, she’d probably be less helpful than her ardent sociopath of a boyfriend would.
Think of it this way: your local post office is probably equipped to perform some minor repairs on its mail trucks, but if your car needs a tune-up, are you going to the post office or a mechanic?
The same goes for the gods. Hera, being in charge of family life, is probably who you want to suck up to if you want a happy marriage, but notice that her name is constantly invoked by Wonder Woman when she’s in need of a little extra “oomph”. Yes, I know that’s fictional, but it’s still pretty obvious that she’s able to do more than make or break someone’s marriage.
The fact that their powers aren’t restricted by their role is also part of the reason that the gods butt heads so much; they’re constantly stepping on each other’s toes. If Athena is your patron, she’s far more likely to do you a solid than the other gods are. So say you ask her to bless your crop harvest. She does it, but that’s technically Demeter’s domain. Suppose Demeter takes offense; if she doesn’t make trouble for Athena because of it, she’s definitely taking it out on you. Zeus constantly takes credit for the work of Hephaestus, which definitely rubs the crippled god the wrong way. Heck, everything Ares does is to start a fight, so including him almost isn’t fair.
If this makes the gods seem like a chaotic mess, you’re not entirely incorrect, but strife on Olympus is actually a rare enough thing. Most of the gods are content to keep out of each other’s way, but conflict makes for much more interesting stories, so that’s all you really get to hear about. Remember the myth about the time that everything was going as planned? “Things are fine and will remain that way, the end.”
I mean, damn, I was bored just typing that.
The last point I want to make is that the gods are not, as we seem to believe, all-powerful. They are subservient to fate just as we are, without a single exception (including Athena, which makes this rule the exception to the rule that Athena is the exception to all rules).
The gods were widely criticized even in ancient times for being “too human”, and many scholars worried that the tales of their “immoral” actions would encourage the same sort of behavior in mankind as a whole. This is no mere misconception, but still needs to be addressed because it’s part of the reason they stopped caring about us.
Humans are, by nature, egocentric creatures. Everything we do is based on us rather than the world around us. The only reasoning behind using a base 10 system for our numbers is that we happen to have that many fingers; there is no natural law dictating that 10 is the right number to be counting to, or that a “right” number even exists. The gods were here first, so saying that their personalities are a lot like ours is just like insisting that Nine Inch Nails did a decent cover of “Hurt”. It’s flat-out backwards. The reason their stories resonate with us is that *we’re* a lot like *them* – our system of morality doesn’t apply, but we can sympathize with a lot of their motivations and feelings. The gods are the ultimate examples of Nietzsche’s Ubermenschen, and that gives us a lot to aspire to – maybe we can’t be perfect, but there’s always something we can do to be better than we are. More importantly, you have an idea of what your goal might look like.
And while we’re on the topic of Ubermenschen, a note about morality: this is a system that humans developed because working together was/is necessary to ensure our survival. Having some unwritten agreements on what constitutes acceptable behavior makes it far more likely that everyone gets along. We can (and should) still strive to be moral because being a dick is universally regarded by other humans as “a bad thing”, but we need to remember that it isn’t a universally applicable metric. Being powerful and independent beings, the gods have no real need for this system. You wouldn’t insist that cartographers measure distance in liters because you like soda and can’t spell “kilometer”, and you certainly wouldn’t get it into your head that adhering to such a silly system makes you a cartographer’s equal (much less their superior).
So if the gods aren’t moral in any human sense and aren’t strictly all-powerful, why do we worship them? Well, like I said: because they’re the gods. The day you get to throw lightning bolts around like javelins, maybe we’ll worship you too.