On Bowing To The Gods – The Greek Perception (An Excerpt)

Now, when these debates come up in earnest around something as simple as bowing before a God – we inevitably find people objecting upon the basis of a rather skewed (mis-)understanding of history and scripture (yes, Indo-European religions have scripture – almost as if this is rather important as a feature of an enduring tradition spanning thousands of years or something). It seems almost customary to cite the opposition of the Macedonians to Alexander’s attempt to institute the Persianate custom of Proskynesis – and thence extrapolate from there that the objection of these Greeks to engaging with their ruler as if he were a God, ought mean that the Greeks were simultaneously opposed to engaging with their actual Gods in anything even vaguely reminiscent of such a manner. 

A moment’s consideration ought reveal the essential fallacy to that attempted equation. 

Especially when we consider some of the actual textual evidence of the Classical world itself upon such matters – 

Here’s Xenophon, in his Anabasis: “Again, when Xerxes at a later time gathered together that countless host and came against Greece, then too our forefathers were victorious, both by land and by sea, over the forefathers of our enemies. As tokens of these victories we may, indeed, still behold the trophies, but the strongest witness to them is the freedom of the states in which you were born and bred; for to no human creature do you pay homage as master, but to the gods alone.”

Now, the words which have been rendered there as “pay homage” – in the original Greek, it is προσκυνεῖτε. Proskyneíte. That is to say, ‘Proskynesis’ – invoked here as something inappropriate when engaging with a mortal human as a master … but most definitely appropriate as applies our relationship to The Gods. Indeed, quite pointedly held here as the essence-tial element which enabled the Greeks to triumph and remain free – although this becomes clearer when parsing Xenophon’s speech in its full length, something we do not have the space to do here for now. 

There’s another occurrence for Proskynesis to be found in that same chapter of the Anabasis, of course – and it is rather more famous. I shall again quote the words of Xenophon: 

“‘[…] but if our intention is to rely upon our arms, and not only to inflict punishment upon them for their past deeds, but henceforth to wage implacable war with them, we have—the gods willing—many fair hopes of deliverance.’
As he was saying this a man sneezed, and when the soldiers heard it, they all with one impulse made obeisance to the god; and Xenophon said, “I move, gentlemen, since at the moment when we were talking about deliverance an omen from Zeus the Saviour was revealed to us, that we make a vow to sacrifice to that god thank-offerings for deliverance as soon as we reach a friendly land; and that we add a further vow to make sacrifices, to the extent of our ability, to the other gods also. All who are in favour of this motion,” he said, “will raise their hands.” And every man in the assembly raised his hand. Thereupon they made their vows and struck up the paean.”

Now, to explicate what has occurred there – at the moment that Xenophon uttered that word, ‘Deliverance’, ‘σωτηρία’ (‘Soteria’), ‘Ten Thousand’ hardened Greek warriors fell to their knees. The reasoning being that it was felt that Zeus the Savior – Zeus Soteria – had sent an omen of their impending deliverance from the most perilous circumstances they now found themselves immersed amidst. Why a sneeze? Why should a sneeze form such a potent portent? I do not know – although one thing I can say for certain is that when thousands of Greek soldiers immediately all bow as a result of it, that is most certainly no ordinary sneeze! 

Xenophon’s speech then takes as its theme the aforementioned situation of the Greeks having historically triumphed against the hostile Persians who sought to render them serfs – thanks to the Availment of the Gods, and the powerful metaphysical forces at play in those conflicts for which they were justly thankful. The serious and ornate ritual understandings enjoined there are quite at odds with this notion of just casually going drinking with divinity. 

Another term which is perhaps relevant is the Ancient Greek ἱκεσῐ́ᾱ / ἱκετείᾱ (‘hiketeia’ / ‘hikesia’) and ἱκᾱ́νω (‘hikano’) – effectively, ‘supplication’, and ‘to approach [as a supplicant]’, respectively (ἱκετεύω (‘hiketeuo’) – ‘to beg’ – is also closely related). These are gestures that are found as far back as the Iliad (i.e. as far back as the Ancient Greek mythological canon really goes, textually speaking), and tend to involve … well, ‘going low’ before the God being approached. ‘Crouching’, touching the knees of the power being supplicated, and other such associated elements are quite pointedly referenced. Although whereas Proskynesis is intended to be more toward the ‘general act of recognition and piety’ end of things, the hiketeia is instead connoted as a more specific call for aid or forgiveness. 

There are, of course, quite numerous further examples which could be drawn from in both the Greek and Roman textual spheres – but I think that I have made my point here. I shall also not expand upon the comparative elements found in Hinduism – although suffice to say that, once again, we find clear resonancies between the Classical and the Hindu understandings (for example, the concept of Pranam – literally ‘bending forward’ in honouring). 

One thought on “On Bowing To The Gods – The Greek Perception (An Excerpt)

  1. Pingback: On Bowing To The Gods – The Greek Perception (An Excerpt) – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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