Evil in the Classical World

(Veja em Português)

Obviously the Classical Antiquity is the Greco Roman World from antiquity till the fall of the Roman Empire.

Classical antiquity (also the classical eraclassical period or classical age) is the long period of cultural history centered on the Mediterranean Sea, comprising the interlocking civilizations of ancient Greece and ancient Rome, collectively known as the Greco-Roman world. It is the period in which Greek and Roman society flourished and wielded great influence throughout Europe, North Africa and Southwestern Asia.

We will try to stress the problem of Evil but it is advisable to take a glimpse in these civilizations because they had a strong influence in everything cultural for the western world, specially in the Renaissance.

A good framing to the subject is to notice that one of the most important transformations in Late Antiquity was the formation and evolution of the Abrahamic Religions;   Christianityrabbinic Judaism and, eventually, Islamism

According to the Pirenne Thesis the subsequent Arab invasions marked the end of Late Antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages.

Take a look on Roman gods and goddesses and Greek Gods and Greek Goddesses

Greek Gods and Goddesses

Roman gods and goddesses

Roman Gods and Goddesses


Although it was the Greeks who first posed the question of the origin and nature of evil in strictly  philosophical terms, they manage to create gods, or Gods, as ambivalent manifestations of the one and same God. This contradictory ethical and ontological qualities (i.e. related to their existence) of the gods indicate more confusion than an atempt to coincide the opposites related to them.

They have two concepts indicating the character of the god, one ouranic or heavenly and the other chthonic, from the underworld (hell?) being the  chthonic more often assimilated with the concept of  evil. Again, you don’t have an entry for ouranic, but you can have a comparison chart between the qualities.

On top of that they have another set of concepts, Theos and Daimon.

Interesting to know is that Theos is at any rate God and Daimon Daemon, to which I invite the reading of the entry. As Rollo May perceived, and we already discussed, Daimon, which is an alternative writing to Damon, in the dictionary is defined as (in ancient Greek belief) a divinity or supernatural being of a nature between gods and humans. Also as an inner or attendant spirit or inspiring force. And it should be observed that its synonyms are numengeniusgenius loci, inspiring force, attendant spirit, tutelary spirit, demon, from which you say: 

It must have been a magnificent daemon that inhabited the heart and soul of this artist”
The king of gods was Zeus Pater, in Greece and Jupiter in Rome. Zeus, or “sky father” in his ancient name, could bring lightning, hail, roaring winds but also kindly light and fertile rains: hence his name maimaktes, the wrathful one.
In Crete, where he was Zeus Kuros, his characteristics were decidedly chthonic, but it was Homer who fixed him permanently in the classical consciousness as an ouranic deity. His wife, Hera, queen of gods,  became a sky goddess bringing both warm weather for crops and destructive storms. She was also chthonic and identified with the primeval earth deity Gaia, also goddess of fertility and childbearing.
But their offspring possessed terrifying natures, such as Hepahistos, god of volcanic explosions and consorted with spirits of caves and of mountains.
Interesting to notice, that the family goes on and on, but the son of Hermes, Pan, who was born hairy and goat like, with horns and cloven hooves and a phallic deity like his father, represented sexual desire, which can be creative and destructive. His iconographic influence upon the Devil as we know it is enormous. How medieval tradition made it possible for the image of Pan to joined with that of Pan has its root in the association of the Devil with the chthonic fertility deities, who were rejected by the Christians as demons along with other pagan gods who were particularly feared because of the association with the wilderness and with sexual frenzy. Sexual passion, which suspends reason and easily leads to excess, was alien both to the rationalism of the Greeks and to the asceticism of the Christians. It was easy to assimilate a god of sexuality with the principle of evil. The association of the chthonic with both sex and the underworld , and hence with death, sealed the union.
It is interesting that Hades, which was the ruler of the underworld, presided over the dark and dreadful kingdom of dead souls and brought death to crops, animals and mankind, was married to the gentle Persephone, lady of springtime. It was she who in the spring, emerging from her underground prison, caused the earth to green. But it was she also who emerged to lead the Erinyes, the terrible spirits of revenge, in their pitiless search for vengeance. Thus the deities of the underworld, in Greece as elsewhere, brought both fear and hope.

The Underworld

From Linkedln learning







7-Rhadamanthys, Minos Alakos





The mythology surrounding all these characters is too long to go into here. Just about everything you can imagine can happen in a group of persons, be it Greeks or Romans, or whatever, there would be some sort of equivalent in the saga of the gods.

It is basic to any comprehension of the Greek religion that it was a living religion, not standardized and refined by literary traditions. Each god was perceived as a manifestation of both the kindly and the destructive aspects of divinity. This ambivalence shows up in the Greek literature, myth and philosophy in the classical period. Homer does not make a clear separation of good and evil and certainly no hypostatization (treat as a distinct substance in reality) of either. The will of the God is not known. Beyond men and beyond gods there exists a remote, impersonal force called Moira that assigns to each god and each man his proper function. Moira is completely without personality or even conscious will, it is  as a concept “a truth about the disposition of Nature”, the truth being that each person has an ordained role to play in the world. In a word: Destiny…

It is also noticeable the strong resemblance in several situations in the Greek and Roman literature, from Homer to Aeschylus with the Book of Job of the Bible.

Basically, Jeffrey Burton Russel says, to Homer evil consists in violating the honor (time) of a god. Take a look at the entry in Wikipedia.

Theodicyin its most common form, is an attempt to answer the question of why a good God permits the manifestation of evil and toward the end of the classical period, the difficulties posed by Greek theodicy became evident in the work of Euripides, where man struggles in the grip of an irrational universe in which the gods represent no order at all.


Because there is a connection between Orphism and Dyonisos in the thinking of Plato, or Platonism and Pythagoras or  Pythagoreanism let’s take a look on it: 

Orphism was , or at least it seems, a parallel religion to the Greek religion. There are unresolved questions whether as to if it ever existed as an organized religion, what was the exact relationship with the cult of Dionysos or to what extent its dualism was form its own or imported. The central myth of Orphism may have been the myth of Dionysos and the Titans.

The Cult of Dyonisos

The concepts exposed here would have to be connected with Nietzsche’s Apollonian and Dionysian  in The Birth of Tragedy to designate the two central principles in Greek culture, as he sees it. Since Nietzsche has done an outstanding contribution in understanding the presence of evil, this is a sort of contribution for anyone who wishes to go deeper in the subject. It is a pity that Erich Auerbach neither in his Mimesis or Dante Poet of the Secular World does not touches Nietzsche directly as more than one scholar pointed out.

The central myth of Orphism may have been the myth of Dionysos and the Titans.
In the beginning of the world was Phanes, the androgyne who brings all things to light. First Phanes bears Ouranos, who sires (fathers) Kronos, the father of Zeus. After Zeus defeats the Titans, he swallows Phanes, thus taking’ into himself the original principle, becoming a creator god, and producing all things anew, including the Titans. Meanwhile Zeus fathers a son, Dionysos. Hating Zeus, and envious of the happiness of the infant Dionysus, the Titans approach the child, distract his attention with a mirror, and seize him. They tear him apart and devour him. But Athene rescues the boy’s heart and brings it to Zeus, who consumes it. Zeus now has intercourse with Semele, who gives birth anew to Dionysos. Pleased with the resurrection of his son, Zeus proceeds to punish his murderers by blasting them to ashes with thunderbolts. From the ashes of the Titans arises the race of mankind.
The myth is wholly dualist. Mankind has a dual nature, spiritual and material. The material part of our nature derives from the Titans, the spiritual part from the Dionysos whom they devoured. The teachings of Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans were highly influential in one development of the dualist tradition. For the Pythagoreans, soul is immortal, flesh mortal. The soul is trapped in the body like prisoner (soma sema), our task on earth is to escape our bodily prison by means of ritual purification.

But the dualism found in these doctrines is different from that of Iran. Iranian dualism posited a conflict between two spiritual powers, one of light and one of darkness. Orphic dualism posited a conflict between the divine soul and the evil, Titanic body that imprisoned it. In Orphism the dualism of matter and spirit, body and soul, is first clearly enunciated: its influence upon Christian, Gnostic, and medieval thought was enormous, and it is one of the most important elements in the history of the Devil. To the extent that Dionysos was good and the Titans evil, which is assumed, to that extent is the soul good and the body evil. This interpretation grew steadily throughout the Hellenistic period, when, influenced by Iranian dualism, matter and the body were assigned to the realm of the evil spirit, and soul to that of the good spirit. At that point the two dualisms, Orphic and Iranian, were united, and the idea that the body and the flesh are the work of cosmic evil became implanted in Jewish and Christian minds. The majority opinion in both Judaism and Christianity has always rejected this idea in its explicit form, but from Gnosticism onwards it has been the most persistent source of heresy. (In Dante explored in the 10th canto)
The doctrine that the body was the prison of the soul caused the Orphics to believe in metempsychosis, the transmigration of souls. One can escape the flesh only through a series of incarnations during which one carefully practices ritual purity. The process of reincarnation ceases when perfect purity is achieved and is delayed by any relapse into carnality. The Orphics abstained from meat both because it is carnal and because an animal might be a reincarnation of a human being. Under the influence of Pythagoras, they also abstained from beans, which they regarded as seed par excellence and therefore the root of the flesh.
The ritual purity of Orphism was also associated with the cult of Dionysos, which was very different indeed. Festivals of Dionysos took place at night, symbol of darkness and the forbidden. They were often held in a cave or grotto, locales
 connected with moisture, fertility, and the chthonic powers. The worshipers were primarily women, the Maenads or Bacchantes, who were led by a male priest.
How could Orphic purity and Dionysiac frenzi exist together? Or to other groups, such as Gnostics, Catharists, etc.? Jeffrey Burton Russel proposes a number of answers:
  • First, Orphic purity was ritual rather than moral.
  • Second, the coexistence of ascetic restraint and frenzied worship is common in the history of religions and, psychologically, is a predictable manifestation of the shadow.
  • Third, frenzied ecstasy is frequently an accepted way of bringing the spirit “out of” the body.
  • Fourth, and most important, it is a manifestation of the coincidence of opposites, of the ambivalence that” underlies all human thought, particularly thought about the gods.
For Dionysus, like the other gods, is ambivalent. The son of Zeus and symbol of spirit against the body, he is also a horned fertility god. The benefactor, Euergeus, he is also Anthroporraistes, “crusher of men,” and Omistes, “eater of raw flesh,” and he rides in a black ship. Most of all he is Lusios or Luaios, the great looser or freer, who releases from all restraints and inhibitions. In the Hellenistic period he became the perfect androgynous, as the great head in the British Museum shows him. Orgy may be perceived as an urge to integration through commingling of the sexes. On the one hand the opposition of spirit and body eventually made the Devil “the lord of this world”. on the other hand the Dionysiac orgy became the model for theology imputed to Gnostics, Catharists and witches.
We are talking of several hundred years and for our purposes, I prefer to use another criteria to frame up this subject in this period.
Some authors divide the Greek Religion in three stages, or sometimes five, whith expansion of the third stage. These stages are the following:
  • First there is the primitive Euetheia or Age of Ignorance, before Zeus came to trouble men’s minds, a stage to which anthropologists and explorers found parallels in every part of the world. Basically somebody (I am not sure if properly) defined it as Primordial Stupidity (Dr. Preuss) see it in German.
  • Secondly there is the Olympian or classical stage, a stage in which  in a rough battle up hill, full of fits and starts this primitive vagueness was reduced a kind of order. This is the stage of the great Olympian gods, who dominated art and poetry, ruled the imagination of Rome and Greece and extended a kind of romantic dominion even over the Middle Ages. Many believe that this context has no value as religion, only as art.
  • Thirdly, there is the Hellenistic period, reaching roughly from Plato to St. Paul and the earlier Gnostics. The successors of Aristotle produced rather a school of progressive science, those of Plato  a school of refined skepticism. The religious side of Plato’s thought would take a while to como to its full power which happened in the 3rd century AD at the time of Plotinus.
To Aristotle would take even longer, it was really exposed by St Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century AD.
It came as a surprise to me but I confirmed it throughout Internet,  Plato didn’t explore systematically the problem of the origin of evil. At the most there are quotations from him saying the obvious, a passing thought. Socrates was more to the point: to him, evil was a failing in practical knowledge of how to do good. It is interesting to observe that Plato’s perception of the opposition between the spirit, the seat or reason and the body, the seat of emotions, and from there the conception of body and soul as manifestations of metaphysical principles of spirit and matter, goodness being ascribed to spirit and evil to matter, which is a incoherent dualism ended up being more coherent by his followers. The development of the concept of Devil owes much, if not almost all, directly to Plato, thanks to the permutations of his thought in the work of Platonists, specially Plotinus. The thought of Aristotle did not admit a principle of evil, which is a demonstration that Plato had opponents.
On the side of Romans, Mithraism is worth to be mentioned. Perhpas better explained here.
"Tauroctony" - Mithras slaying a bull

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