In my previous post in this series, I explored a text quote which demonstrates how the absence of purity is not a deal-breaker if you are a human calling out with an earnest heart to Hellenic deities.
In this post, I’d like to look at a quote very often cited as evidence that one should never make prayer in a state of impurity.
…and with hands unwashed I would take shame to pour the glittering wine to Zeus; there is no means for a man to pray to the dark-misted son of Kronos, with blood and muck all splattered upon him
— Homer’s Iliad, 6.266-8
When you take this quote utterly out of the context of the surrounding story, it seems pretty clearly supportive of the idea that you can’t pray, at all, without ritual purity. Strange, considering the anecdote about Glaucus that I explored in my last post.
Let’s zoom out a bit and get some context. For those who aren’t familiar with the Iliad, it is a story of a war. That war has “good guys” we are supposed to be rooting for, and “bad guys” who everyone knows lost.
Who, here, is speaking? Where are they? How did their actions turn out? Did their concern for purity help them?
But when Hector was come to the Scaean gate and the oak-tree, round about him came running the wives and daughters of the Trojans asking of their sons and brethren and friends and husbands. But he thereupon bade them make prayer to the gods, all of them in turn; yet over many were sorrows hung. But when he was now come to the beauteous palace of Priam, adorned with polished colonnades —and in it were fifty chambers of polished stone, built each hard by the other; therein the sons of Priam were wont to sleep beside their wedded wives; and for his daughters over against them on the opposite side within the court were twelve roofed chambers of polished stone, built each hard by the other; therein slept Priam’s sons-in-law beside their chaste wives—there his bounteous mother came to meet him, leading in Laodice, fairest of her daughters to look upon; and she clasped him by the hand and spake and addressed him:
— Homer’s Iliad, 6. 238-252
Stop. Where are we? This is the Trojan War, but we’ve suddenly entered a domestic scene. Hector has left the field of battle, and entered a place of domesticity and beauty. In terms of which side of the war this is? It’s the side that has stolen Hellen and is destined to lose. Who is Hector? He’s the greatest warrior of Troy, and in this war, before it is over, he’ll have killed 31,000 Greek fighters, at least if you believe Hyginus. Ancient people listening to and reading this story will know in advance that the Trojans are going to lose. The mythology and relations with the gods portrayed in the story are there to explain both how this war lasted so long, and also why the Trojans were ultimately defeated.
But let’s continue.
“My child, why hast thou left the fierce battle and come hither? Of a surety the sons of the Achaeans, of evil name, are pressing sore upon thee as they fight about our city, and thy heart hath bid thee come hitherward and lift up thy hands to Zeus from the citadel. But stay till I have brought thee honey-sweet wine that thou mayest pour libation to Zeus and the other immortals first, and then shalt thou thyself have profit thereof, if so be thou wilt drink. When a man is spent with toil wine greatly maketh his strength to wax, even as thou art spent with defending thy fellows.”
— Homer’s Iliad, 6. 254-263
Ah yes. Wine. His mother is offering it to him. The primary reason isn’t to honor Zeus, but to soothe a man who is “spent with toil.”
The idea that one should not drink wine without making a libation offering first is one we encounter in Plato, also. Socrates, even, ponders whether he might be allowed to make offers from his hemlock before drinking it. But Hector is not staying long and puts his mother off.
Then in answer to her spake great Hector of the flashing helm: “Bring me no honey-hearted wine, honoured mother, lest thou cripple me, and I be forgetful of my might and my valour; moreover with hands unwashen I have awe to pour libation of flaming wine to Zeus; nor may it in any wise be that a man should make prayer to the son of Cronos, lord of the dark clouds, all befouled with blood and filth.”
— Ibid, 6. 264-268
What does Hector mention first? That he doesn’t want to get drunk, because it will make him clumsy and behave like a fool. And anyway, he’s all dirty. He’s got the capacity to go get clean, but not the inclination. That he doesn’t have time to bathe and purify is secondary to “I don’t want to get drunk.”
Far from being an example of religious piety, this episode with Hector demonstrates an unwillingness to personally engage with the gods. He is making excuses. The pretense at piety fools No One.
Nay, do thou go to the temple of Athene, driver of the spoil, with burnt-offerings, when thou hast gathered together the aged wives; and the robe that seemeth to thee the fairest and amplest in thy hall, and that is dearest far to thine own self, this do thou lay upon the knees of fair-haired Athene and vow to her that thou wilt sacrifice in her temple twelve sleek heifers that have not felt the goad, if she will take pity on Troy and the Trojans’ wives and their little children; in hope she may hold back the son of Tydeus from sacred Ilios, that savage spearman, a mighty deviser of rout. So go thou to the temple of Athene, driver of the spoil; and I will go after Paris, to summon him, if haply he will hearken to my bidding.
— Ibid. 6. 269-280
So what happens? Does Hector’s notion that he’ll be better off getting someone who is ritually pure to pray to Athena for him pan out?
Now when they were come to the temple of Athene in the citadel, the doors were opened for them by fair-cheeked Theano, daughter of Cisseus, the wife of Antenor, tamer of horses; for her had the Trojans made priestess of Athene. Then with sacred cries they all lifted up their hands to Athene; and fair-cheeked Theano took the robe and laid it upon the knees of fair-haired Athene, and with vows made prayer to the daughter of great Zeus:
“Lady Athene, that dost guard our city, fairest among goddesses, break now the spear of Diomedes, and grant furthermore that himself may fall headlong before the Scaean gates; to the end that we may now forthwith sacrifice to thee in thy temple twelve sleek heifers that have not felt the goad, if thou wilt take pity on Troy and the Trojans’ wives and their little children.”
So spake she praying, but Pallas Athene denied the prayer.
Ibid. 6. 299-310
So, in summary, comparing the situation of Hector to that of Glaucus:
Looking at the consequences, I draw a very different conclusion about this textual evidence. It seems to me that a better consequence comes of crying out to the gods honestly and directly, irrespective of purity status, than to get a third party to do it for you, no matter how perfectly the ritual is done.
Granted, Athena might have just decided “fuck the Trojans” well in advance. In fact, we know that she did. But she could have easily said, “my will is that you should lose the war, but I will answer you and protect all the women and children.”
Regardless, the initial quotation is not the slam dunk it initially appears to be. The gods may choose to answer the prayers of the impure, and deny the prayers of the pure. They may answer those who earnestly pray with empty hands, and they may ignore even the most perfectly executed rituals.
Consider this when next you hear someone beating the war drums over ritual purity. The gods care about purity, but they don’t care nearly as much about it as they care about justice, politics, fairness, love, honesty, and genuine sentiment.
And if you put off making genuine contact with the gods because purity is too much overhead right now, you are making Hector’s mistake. It is better to pray for yourself, empty-handed, bleeding, surrounded by corpses and covered with grime, than to have someone else — even if they are pure and excellent with ritual and capable of bearing precious gifts– do it for you.