In the opening paragraph of The Birth of Tragedy (orig./trans.), Nietzsche names Apollo and Dionysus as “both” of the Greeks’ “art-deities” (ihre beiden Kunstgottheiten)—as if they were the only two.

But the myth recounted by the title character in Plato’s Protagoras (320c-322d, DK 80.C.1) represents Prometheus as stealing for us mortals entechnos sophia—the wit to invent arts and crafts—from the workshops of Hephaestus and Athena, together with fire, which is indispensable for such crafts as metalwork, pottery, and cookery. (Aeschylus also credits Prometheus for our species' unique mastery of arts, PV 442-506.) And the larger point of that whole story concerns the politikē technē, the art of politics (i.e., of establishing, governing, and living in civil communities), which belongs to Zeus, whose place Prometheus dared not burgle. So here we have three Olympian deities associated with art, and this set of three has no overlap with Nietzsche’s set of two.

I suspect two very different notions of “art” are in play here. Nietzsche, in a work dedicated to Wagner, has in mind a lofty Romantic ideal of “high” art. Accordingly he names only “fine” or prestige arts in this same paragraph—sculpture for Apollo, music for Dionysus—on his way to theorizing the birth of another prestige art, tragic poetry. But the word reliably underlying “art” in English translations of ancient Greek writings is technē, which equally denoted much humbler handicrafts, such as the spinning and weaving that were Athena’s and women’s special province. Any more or less specialized know-how that could be taught and learned was a technē. (Much of Plato’s work is devoted to the question whether moral virtue[s] might qualify.)

Are not all or most of the Greek gods associated with one or more “arts” in this broader sense?

  • The Muses would seem to go without saying, though their existence as a distinct set might seem to undercut this whole hypothesis. Or not—see Do Muses govern the arts? on this site.
  • Zeus patronizes the art of politics, as noted, presumably including the art of rhetoric, often credited with the initial formation of civil society; and also the art of hospitality. (Rhetoric and hospitality are both represented as teachable practices by Homer: Iliad 9.439-43, Odyssey 3.13-28 & 4.20-36.)
  • Apollo is associated with healing arts as Paeon, and prophetic or mantic ones as Loxias. Also (pace Nietzsche) lyric music, which the Homeric hymn to Hermes (HH4 490ff) suggests is somehow delegated to him by that god, as is prophecy from Zeus, or ultimately from Gaea; and in turn Apollo’s own mantle of healer-god was passed in the classical period to his deified hero-son Asclepius.
  • Dionysus, whatever his relationship to musical, theatrical, and yes also healing arts, seems obviously associated with the arts of viticulture and wine-making.
  • Hermes, besides inventing and mastering musical instruments more than one per the afore-cited hymn, is god of thieves, so we can assign him the art of the Artful Dodger.
  • Ares may well have preceded Sun Tzu in professing an art of war.
  • Poseidon presumably rules both navigation and horsemanship, Artemis the art of hunting, Demeter the art of agriculture, and Hestia the home-maker’s arts.
  • Hades/Aidoneus might be a stretch, but funerary rites surely admit of both right and wrong ways of doing things, and the teaching of future practitioners to know and observe the difference.
  • How Aphrodite and Eros divvy up the arts of love is an even more vexed question than which of the two is older. Between them, though, they patronize such arts as are detailed in Ovid’s Ars Amatoria and the Kama Sutra. By such arts are human pair-bonds formed, but to form one is all too often to destroy another. That leaves room for a distinct art and divinity, related in this sense as Vishnu to Shiva, for the preservation of the pair-bond through time. The art is the art of marriage—not so much the getting married as the staying so—and the divinity would be Hera.

I’m admittedly speculating and spitballing a good deal here, but it really begins to seem to me as if the awe that was eventually personified as the various Greek gods (per Cassirer’s theory of theogony in Language and Myth) may well have arisen in significant part from the Greeks’ awe at their own practical inventiveness, their entechnos sophia. Sophocles’ chorus in Antigone famously sings that nothing is so awe-inspiring (deinos) as our own species, specifically on account of the arts we devise and practice (322ff).

So is the Greek pantheon a mythologized polytechnic? Or is this just a spin one could as easily put on any pantheon or religion? Or what?

  • Hmm. As Gods are epitomes of culture, there must be a relation to some form of art, almost by construction. I think we can do similar things for almost any pantheon. Maybe we can search for a more satisfying answer if you can clarify the relation to art that you seek. Feb 6, 2022 at 14:02


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