I find our connections to ancient times always an education. I wonder how many people see the similarity of hero athletes of today being doused with Gatorade during an interview — or getting a pie in the face — as a modern-day nod towards the ancient fear of inflated pride.
The Greeks called it hubris — exaggerated pride — the surety of not only “I CAN do it” but “I WILL do it.”
Hubris meant enjoying glory. But this was dangerous. Glory was the property of the gods.
Hubris meant having confidence in one’s future. This was dangerous. The future was the realm of the gods.
There’s a way people say this today. “When you make plans, God laughs.”
Most famously, it was a saying of the chaplain of the NY Fire Department who was one of the first to die on 9/11 during the collapse of the Twin Towers. He used to say, “When you make plans, God laughs.”
This was understood among the ancients: The future was the realm of the gods. Glory belonged to the gods.
Careful not to encroach!
In Patton, the film ends with the General taking a walk alone, wistfully talking about ancient times:
“For over a thousand years, Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of a triumph, a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeters, musicians and strange animals from the conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conquerors rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him…A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.’ ”
A beautiful speech, but not quite accurate.
The slave would be in the chariot all right, but what he said was not, “All glory is fleeting.” Rather, the slave would chant — mantra-like — “Remember — thou art only mortal.”
(Strangely, the film that gets this right is History of the World Part One by Mel Brooks!)
The slave’s role in chanting this saying — not whispering it but saying it aloud — was to PROTECT the conqueror from the jealousy of the gods.
Today, it’s done with a shower of Gatorade or a pie in the face.
I don’t think the athletes are thinking about gods or God or ancient practices. I think the athletes of today are just telling the hero of the day, “Don’t take yourself too seriously. Tomorrow you could fall flat on your face.”
Which is always for me an education — how the things that we do today are similar to what was done in Antiquity. The awareness of the ancients may not be there, but the emotional underpinning of the fear of excessive pride is the same.
Back in 1971, when the Pittsburgh Pirates were playing superbly on the way to a World Series championship, one day during the season, Roberto Clemente was at the old home of the New York Mets, Shea Stadium. He was interviewed before the game by Richie Ashburn. Ashburn asked Clemente when he thought he might get base hit No. 3,000. Clemente had only about 150 hits to reach the milestone. The normal estimate is that Clemente would get his 3,000th hit during the next season, 1972.
Clemente paused. He spoke hesitantly, “Well…you never know what God’s gonna do.”
He did indeed get hit No. 3,000 the next season — but he died some 90 days later. On New Year’s Eve, he died in a plane crash, trying to bring relief supplies to earthquake victims in Managua, Nicaragua.
I’ve heard some people suggesting that Clemente had a foreknowledge of early death. I dispute that opinion. I think it’s simply that Clemente, a Roman Catholic, had grown up with the idea drilled into him that God is in charge. Clemente wanted to avoid sounding confident about the future. That was the realm of God.
In ancient times, it was fear of the gods — plural.
I would dispute the idea that God prompts like a movie director all that happens in our lives. That concept itself is as pagan as plural gods. The fear that our lives are directed by the gods was the attitude of the day, and that environment of belief influenced the writers of the Scriptures, such that even though the “gods” had been reduced to “God,” the ancient attributes of wrathful and jealous and controlling remained.