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COMPASSION IN ANCIENT GREEK RELIGION

THE COMPASSION OF ZEUS
ΕΛΕΟΣ

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The compassion of the Gods

The word for compassion in ancient Greek is ǽlæos (eleos; Gr. ἔλεος); Ǽlæos is sometimes personified as a Goddess. Compassion is having empathy for the suffering of other sentient beings and it is absolutely central to Ællinismόs (Hellenismos; Gr. Ἑλληνισμός), the ancient Greek religion. Compassion is virtually never acknowledged or even mentioned in discussion of the religion. One of the major reasons for this is the artificial separation made between the common religion and the theology and practices presented in the Mystíria (Mysteria or Musteria; Gr. Μυστήρια), but the Mysteries are simply the deeper meaning of the common religion and they were sought after by all people who were serious about religious practice and worship. The Mysteries were not, and are not a peculiar and minor sub-set of Ællinismόs but they are, rather, central to it; indeed, the Mystíria are the very heart of the ancient Greek religion 

At the center of the Mysteries we find the teachings of the great theologian Orphefs (Orpheus; Gr. Ὀρφεύς), who taught of the compassion of Zefs (Zeus; Gr. Ζεύς) and by extension of all divinityThe myriad Gods of all creation have a vast capacity to feel and understand the sufferings of other creatures and they are concerned with the progress of all souls. This is evident by the very nature of divinity, an essence of being which is at a surpassingly high level and has as its source the highest of all the Gods, Zefs, the father of Gods and men. Zefs is well known for the epithet Xǽnios (Gr. Ξένιος), he who protects strangers. Said in a different way, it is an offense against the God if one is inhospitable. Therefore, it can be deduced that Zefs has compassion for the defenseless, for the stranger is vulnerable. Similarly, Zefs is known as the protector of suppliants, those who humbly request from the powerful or the Gods. In the words of Ómiros (Homer; Gr. Ὅμηρος):

"...Zeus is the avenger of suppliants and strangers—Zeus, the strangers' God—who ever attends upon reverend strangers." [1]

And it is also well known that the God supports Justice, Law, and Order, again demonstrating his compassion for the defenseless. In the words of Isíodos (Hesiod; Gr. Ἡσίοδος):

"You princes, mark well this punishment you also; for the deathless Gods are near among men and mark all those who oppress their fellows with crooked judgements, and reck (ed. pay heed) not the anger of the Gods. For upon the bounteous earth Zeus has thrice ten thousand spirits, watchers of mortal men, and these keep watch on judgements and deeds of wrong as they roam, clothed in mist, all over the earth. And there is virgin Justice, the daughter of Zeus, who is honoured and reverenced among the Gods who dwell on Olympus, and whenever anyone hurts her with lying slander, she sits beside her father, Zeus the son of Cronos, and tells him of men's wicked heart, until the people pay for the mad folly of their princes who, evilly minded, pervert judgement and give sentence crookedly. Keep watch against this, you princes, and make straight your judgements, you who devour bribes; put crooked judgements altogether from your thoughts.

"He does mischief to himself who does mischief to another, and evil planned harms the plotter most.

"The eye of Zeus, seeing all and understanding all, beholds these things too, if so he will, and fails not to mark what sort of justice is this that the city keeps within it. Now, therefore, may neither I myself be righteous among men, nor my son -- for then it is a bad thing to be righteous -- if indeed the unrighteous shall have the greater right. But I think that all-wise Zeus will not yet bring that to pass.

"But you, Perses, lay up these things within your heart and listen now to right, ceasing altogether to think of violence. For the son of Cronos has ordained this law for men, that fishes and beasts and winged fowls should devour one another, for right is not in them; but to mankind he gave right which proves far the best. For whoever knows the right and is ready to speak it, far-seeing Zeus gives him prosperity; but whoever deliberately lies in his witness and forswears himself, and so hurts Justice and sins beyond repair, that man's generation is left obscure thereafter. But the generation of the man who swears truly is better thenceforward." [2]

Therefore, not only does Zefs himself practice these forms of compassion and justice, but he also advocates such action in the world and rewards those who imitate himself in regards to these matters.

The aspiration of this essay is not to enumerate all the various nurturing qualities of the God, but, rather, it is to testify that the entire ambition of Zefs as regards to his creation is wholly based on compassion, a compassion which is overarching and comprehensive and does not merely consist of stray qualities only affecting one mortal life. There is a reason why Zefs is known by the epithet Sohtír (Soter; Gr. Σωτήρ), for this word means Savior and his role in this regard can be clearly seen in the progression of the Six Kings found in the Orphic Rhapsodic Theogony.


The struggle and ascendancy of Zefs

When studying the ancient Greek religion many people bring along baggage from the religion of their upbringing, and that religion is usually Christianity. Sometimes comparison is made between the Christian/Judaic God-the-father and Zefs, the father of Gods and men, but there are important differences in how the two religions understand deity. The Christian view is that God has existed forever, that there was never a time when he did not exist, and that he was always perfect, but if you study the theogonies of ancient Greece you will discover a different perspective: the Gods came to be and the mythology seems to indicate a progression, a development, an evolution. You can see this in the theogony of Isíodos (Hesiod; Gr. Ἡσίοδος) and other ancient Greek theogonies. Most particularly as regards this essay, it is most perfectly demonstrated in the Orphic Rhapsodic Theogony where in the beginning there were no Gods at all. Rather, the great theologian Orphéfs calls the primordial state of the kózmos (cosmos; Gr. κόσμος) the Árritos Arkhí (Ἄρρητος Ἀρχή), árritos meaning "that which cannot be expressed or divulged" + arkhí, "beginning." This state is an undifferentiated mixture and there is no God existing before it. 

Out of the primordial mixture, due to Necessity (Ἀνάγκη), a host of deities emerge beginning with Phánis (Fanis or Phanes; Gr. Φάνης) and propelling forward through Nyx (Gr. Νύξ), Ouranós (Uranus; Gr. Οὐρανός), Krónos, (Cronus; Gr. Κρόνος), Zefs, and, finally, Diónysos (Dionysus; Gr. Διόνυσος), a progression of mighty Gods known as the Six Kings. The mythology lays out a monumental struggle eventually resolving in the kingship of mighty Zefs. He is known by the epithet ýpatos (hypatus; Gr. ύπατος) which means the "highest," for he is greatest of all divinities. He did not possess this greatness from time immemorial but he earned it; he achieved it through enormous effort. The Alexandrian poet Kallímakhos (Callimachus; Gr. Καλλίμαχος) refers to the mythology of the three brothers, Zefs, Poseidóhn and Ploutohn, casting lots for the three realms (the heavens, the sea, and the earth), but he points out that it is not by mere chance that these deities hold the dominions which they possess:

"Thou wert made sovereign of the Gods not by casting of lots but by the deeds of thy hands, thy might and that strength which thou hast set beside thy throne." [3]

The various mythological stories indicate that Zefs achieved his ascendancy through a great struggle and it is because of this struggle that Zefs possesses the ultimate empathy for all beings resulting in the greatest compassion imaginable. For Zefs understands. And the result of his foresight and compassion is expressed in the mission of the Sixth King.


The Sixth King and the compassion of Zefs

In the Orphic Rhapsodic Theogony, we are told of the progression of kings, the first personal deity being Ouranós. This God was defeated by his son Krónos who was then defeated by Zefs. This is mystical language concealing a very real progression of deity culminating in mighty Zefs, in which the great struggle is resolved resulting in his achieving absolute supremacy forever. The Kózmos had come to be of its own, a spontaneous emerging due to the changing of conditions brought about by Necessity. Now after eons of time, Zefs has ascended. The theogony now goes on to describe how this mighty God, possessing unequaled understanding and with the power of Phánis, swallowed everything and created the universe anew, not arbitrarily, but now deliberately. This accomplishment is celebrated in the Great Orphic Rhapsodic Hymn to Zefs.

Zefs then initiated a series of actions for a great purpose, for he has remarkable prescience (foresight). He produced the son Zagréfs (Zagreus; Gr. Ζαγρεύς) by means of Pærsæphóni (Persephone; Gr. Περσεφόνη). Zagréfs is the worthy and willing vessel chosen for this mighty task, for his soul is of the essence of his father. While still yet a child, the Titánæs (Titans; Gr. Τιτᾶνες), the powers of the natural world, exerted their influence on Zagréfs and the God endured all the progression of rebirths required by nature, but with vast intensity, infinitely more so than any soul could ever experience, for he suffered this for love of all creation. And when the pain became harrowing, the Natural Powers would not allow him to escape, for intertwined in his sacrificial act was bound the destiny of all sentient beings. Zagréfs gave up his body which was then cooked, tasted and sacrificed to the Gods by the Titánæs, but his limbs and still-beating heart were retrieved. This being done, the Titánæs were themselves sacrificed and burnt by a thunderbolt of Zefs.

From the resulting soot of the sacrifice of Zagréfs and the Titánæs, Zefs formed a new race of beings, our race of beings. We women and men and all the various creatures of the universe share in the character of the Gods because we have immortal souls, but our bodies are ephemeral. And while we experience much beauty in our lives, yet we are still yet subject to great pain and finally death. Our souls return in new bodies only to repeat this sorrowful cycle of births (κύκλος γενέσεως) over and over again with little respite. Zefs has created this sublime and magnificent universe, but since he also is subject to the laws of nature, there is inevitable suffering. Nonetheless, this is the best possible world. And in his divine wisdom and foresight he devised a solution initiated with the birth of Zagréfs, now swiftly coming to fruition.

Zefs then conceived a child in lovely Sæmǽli (Semele; Gr. Σεμέλη) and placed the beating heart of Zagréfs within her womb. Sæmǽli was promised the gift of her desire and she chose to behold Zefs in his true glory. But she was not capable of surviving this and her body burnt away when Zefs appeared before her surrounded by lightning. Zefs retrieved the infant from her womb and sewed it into his own leg, and from the thigh of Zefs a child is born, risen again from the heart of Zagréfs; he is Diónysos (Dionysus; Gr. Διόνυσος), who fulfills the providence of his father by promulgating his Mysteries which free the souls of women and men from the sorrowful cycle of births. He gives us the Wine, the Aithír (Aether; Gr. Αἰθήρ) of Zefs which, if partook of, intoxicates the soul and transforms it. Thus, in Diónysos the compassionate providence of Zefs is realized and it is for this reason that the Mysteries are of such great importance to mankind. And by means of his son Diónysos the compassion of Zefs is made manifest for he deeply cares that we suffer.

From the Orphic fragments:

ἧς ϰαὶ οἱ παρʹ Ὀρφεῖ τῶι Διονύσωι ϰαὶ τῆι Κόρηι τελούμενοι τυχεῖν εὔχονται·
ϰύϰλου τ' ἂν λύξαι ϰαὶ ἀναπνεύσαι ϰαϰότητος [4]

"...in whose life those who are initiated by Orphéfs in the Mysteries of Diónysos and Pærsæphóni, pray that they may accomplish:
‘freedom from the cycle, and a cessation of evil.’ "

From the Orphic fragments:

ἄνθρωποι δὲ τεληέσσας ἑϰατόμβας 
πέμψουσιν πάσηισι ἐν ὥραις ἀμφιέτηισιν 
ὄργια τ' ἐϰτελέσουσι λύσιν προγόνων ἀθεμίστων 
μαιόμενοι· σὺ δὲ τοῖσιν ἔχων ϰράτος, οὕς ϰ' ἐθέληισθα, 
λύσεις ἔϰ τε πόνων χαλεπῶν ϰαὶ ἀπείρονος οἴστρου. [5]

Men will offer perfect hecatombs [6]
in all the seasons of the year,
and will perform the secret rites, desiring to be liberated from their lawless character.
Then you (ed. Di
ónysos), having power over these things, will release who you wish
from agonizing suffering and the ceaseless madness.


Ramifications of the Providence of Zefs

All the Gods, but in particular the Olympian Gods, are collaborators in the providence of Zefs, for they participate in and promulgate the Mysteries of his son Diónysos and they use their unrivaled capacity to help sentient beings to move forward and to alleviate our suffering. As the saying goes, the Gods are inclined towards our benefit, and they execute skillful means to bring their compassion to fruition. 

The Olympians are the magistrates of the Natural Laws and they assist the less progressed mortal beings in their understanding and in how to work with these laws. The many benefits which the Olympians bestow upon the Kózmos (Cosmos; Gr. Κόσμος) is well-known. Æstía (Hestia; Gr. Ἑστία) is the fire of life at the center of the universe, the source of being and becoming. Áris (Ares; Gr. Ἄρης) helps us battle through the struggles inherent in life. Ártæmis (Artemis; Gr. Ἄρτεμις) provides much needed energy and propels us forward with her arrows. Íphaistos (Hephaestus; Gr. Ἥφαιστος) is the fire which burns in nature within our bodies, giving us form, and he benefits us by creating the form of the universe, for the sun, the stars, and the moon are his very limbs. Íra (Hera; Gr. Ἥρα), our great queen, is intermingled with her brother in the winds of the Sky, along with him generating everything; she loves mankind and kindles ǽrohs in aithír of our emotions, eroticizing the soul, and drawing the mind and the will into harmony. Poseidóhn (Poseidon; Gr. Ποσειδῶν), who supports the foundation of the earth, is the master of the aithír and propels us to great progress. Athiná (Athena; Gr. Ἀθηνᾶ), the abundant mother of the arts, stirs the soul to interact with creation, thrusting us forward and acting as a great inspiration, for she is the very embodiment of VirtueAphrodíti (Aphrodite; Gr. Ἀφροδίτη), who causes creation to procreate and continue, harmonizes the internal battles brought about as a natural consequence of life. Apóllohn (Apollo; Gr. Ἀπόλλων), who expresses the will of his father and whose benefits are numerous, frees the soul and with his Mystic music commands the axis of the heavens. Ærmís (Hermes; Gr. Ἑρμῆς) is the great lover of mankind who bestows so many benefits that it is useless to try to enumerate them: he gives us eloquent speech and cleverness of all kinds and, in the end, guides us to the next stage when we die. Zefs (Zeus; Gr. Ζεύς) is our mighty king who cares for each and every soul; he hears every word and knows every thing and, in the end, assures that Justice is the rule, for all things belong to him, the earth, the sea, and everything in the heavens. Dimítir (Demeter; Gr. Δημήτηρ) has taught us agriculture and thereby encourages peace and harmonious society, and with her glorious Daughter, she gives us great Mysteries which free the soul. And this is just a tiny list of the benefits given to us by the Olympians. Verily, one could write volumes enumerating the blessings bestowed on us by the Olympian Gods. And the millions and trillions of other deities in the universe, who bestow endless blessings and benefits, could be said to be the children of the Olympians  

So it is right to say that the Gods are compassionate, and, by extension, it is also right to exhort those who love the Gods, to imitate them and to develop and exercise compassion in their own lives...because it is a beautiful thing and it is a magnificent expression of one of the great pillars of our religion: Arætí (Arete; Gr. Ἀρετή), Virtue. To become a compassionate person is to become God-like. Our souls are of the same substance as the Gods and they resonate with such beauty. As Plátohn (Plato; Gr. Πλάτων) says in Laws:

"Now God ought to be to us the measure of all things, and not man, as men commonly say: the words are far more true of Him. And he who would be dear to God must, as far as is possible, be like Him and such as He is." [7]

It is impossible to stress the practice of compassion too greatly, for compassion is the very essence of our religion. If you do not apply compassion in your life, knowledge of all the secrets of Orphismós is absolutely worthless. You may have vast tracks of Homer and Plato memorized, you may know the Orphic hymns by heart, you may practice ritual to absolute perfection, but if you do not have compassion, you have nothing. For our religion is founded on the empathy of Zefs for all creation, whereby he gave us the Mysteries, the mighty teachings which free all from the suffering of the circle of rebirth; this is the compassion of Zefs and the compassion of the Gods. This teaching is the very heart of Ællinismόs, the ancient Greek religion and these Mysteries are what makes Ællinismόs a genuine religion, for a religion which does not make a difference in the world is insubstantial, weak, and ultimately false. If you believe this, make a commitment to become a compassionate person and to uncover the means by which this is possible, for the path of the friends of altruism is not an easy one, yet its rewards are divine.

πάντα γὰρ οὔπω
ἐκ Διὸς ἄνθρωποι γινώσκομεν, ἀλλ᾽ ἔτι πολλὰ
770κέκπυπται, τῶν αἴ κε θέλῃ καὶ ἐσαυτίκα δώσει
Ζεύς: ὁ γὰρ οὖν γενεὴν ἀνδρῶν ἀναφανδὸν ὀφέλλει,
πάντοθεν εἰδόμενος, πάντη δ᾽ ὅ γε σήματα φαίνων.

"For not yet do we mortals know all from Zeus, but much still remains hidden, whereof, what he will, even hereafter will he reveal; for openly he aids the race of men, manifesting himself on every side and showing signs on every hand." (Ἄρᾱτος ὁ Σολεύς Φαινόμενα 768-772. Trans.G. R. Mair, 1921. As found in Callimachus and Lycophron. Aratus. William Heinemann [London] G. P. Putnam's Sons [New York], p. 441)

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N
OTES: (Abbreviations may be found at the bottom of this page: GLOSSARY HOME.)

[1] Ὅμηρος Ὀδύσσεια 9.270, trans. A. T. Murray, 1919. We are using the 1946 Loeb Classical Library edition entitled Homer: The Odyssey Vol. 1, Harvard Univ. Press (Cambridge, MA) and William Heinemann (London), where this quotation may be found on p. 321.

[2] Ἡσίοδος Ἔργα καὶ Ἡμέραι (Works and Days) 248-285, trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914. We are using the 1936 Loeb Classical Library edition entitled Hesiod - The Homeric Hymns and Homerica, Harvard Univ. Press (Cambridge, MA) and William Heinemann (London), where this quotation may be found on pp. 21-25.

[3] Καλλίμαχος Εἰς Δία (To Zefs) 65-66, trans. A.W. Mair, 1921. Callimachus and Lycophron, William Heinemann (London) and G. P. Putnam's Sons (New York), where this quotation may be found on p. 43-45.

[4] Orphic fragment 229. Πρόκλος Commentary on the Τίμαιος of Πλάτων 42 c.d (III 297,3 Diehl).

[5] Orphic fragment 232. Ὀλυμπιόδωρος Commentary on the Φαίδων of Πλάτων. B ιαʹ p. 87, 13 (as designated in Kern Orphicorum Fragmenta).

[6] The ækatómvi (hecatomb; Gr. ἑκατόμβη) is the offering of 100 oxen. In practice, the ækatómvi was simply a great sacrifice of uncertain number.

[7] Πλάτων Νόμοι (Laws) 4.716c, translated by Benjamin Jowett, 1892; found in the book entitled The Dialogues of Plato Vol. II, Random House edition, 1937, on pp. 488.


The story of the birth of the GodsOrphic Rhapsodic Theogony.
We know the various qualities and characteristics of the Gods based on metaphorical stories: Mythology
Dictionary of terms related to ancient Greek mythology: Glossary of Hellenic Mythology.

Introduction to the Thæí (the Gods): The Nature of the Gods.


The logo to the left is the principal symbol of this website. It is called the CESS logo, i.e. the Children of the Earth and the Starry Sky. The 
Pætilía (Petelia; Gr. Πετηλία) and other golden tablets having this phrase are the inspiration for the symbol. The image represents this idea: Earth (divisible substance) and the Sky (continuous substance) are the two kozmogonic substances. The twelve stars represent the Natural Laws, the dominions of the Olympian Gods. In front of these symbols is the seven-stringed kithára (cithara; Gr. κιθάρα), the lyre of Apóllohn (Apollo; Gr. Ἀπόλλων). It (here) represents the bond between Gods and mortals and is representative that we are the children of Orphéfs (Orpheus; Gr. Ὀρφεύς). 



PLEASE NOTE: Throughout the pages of this website, you will find fascinating stories about our Gods. These narratives are known as 

, the traditional stories of the Gods and Heroes. While these tales are great mystical vehicles containing transcendent truth, they are symbolic and should not be taken literally. A literal reading will frequently yield an erroneous result. The meaning of the myths is concealed in code. To understand them requires a key. For instance, when a God kills someone, this usually means a transformation of the soul to a higher level. Similarly, sexual union with a God is a transformation.


The story of the birth of the Gods: Orphic Rhapsodic Theogony.
We know the various qualities and characteristics of the Gods based on metaphorical stories: Mythology
Dictionary of terms related to ancient Greek mythology: Glossary of Hellenic Mythology.

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