Culture

Why We Worship Celebrities

Olympus

The lights went out on Mount Olympus a long time ago, but they’re burning bright on the red carpet. There’s a connection there – it’s not a coincidence that a world without Greek gods is a world that wants to know what Brad Pitt eats for breakfast.  We can’t worship the ancient pantheon anymore – it would be ridiculous, and, God be praised, we know better. But like it or not, there’s a space in the human heart shaped like the pagan deities. That’s the space we’ve filled with T-Swift and J-Biebz, with Miley Cyrus and Will Smith. Absurd but true: with the old temples empty, we’ve built new altars to matinée idols.

A lot of ancient Greeks treated their gods like a paparazzo treats this week’s it girl. They wanted to know every dirty detail about the glamorous lives of the rich, famous and divine. So they dug for dirt. They wrote myth after myth about the Olympian family’s sex lives, their embarrassing cover-ups, their petty feuds. Just like gossip columnists, Greek mythographers were more than happy to invent a new story if there wasn’t a juicy enough one out there already. Aphrodite and Ares’ secret affair, exposed! Artemis caught topless on woodland vacation – lashes out at voyeur! Apollo ends career of promising young indie artist – jealousy from pop music’s king?

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It was nothing like today, when most believers try to talk about God with a kind of solemn deference, respecting the dignity of the divine. Some Greek writers took that track, but they were reacting against the popular model, which was dish, dish, dish. Every sordid detail of the Olympians’ personal lives was on close-up tabloid display. If there had been a dumpster out back behind Mount Olympus, ancient writers like Apollodorus or Aristophanes would have rooted through it for a tip-off to the next story.

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But we don’t tell those stories much anymore, and we definitely don’t believe them. The halls of Zeus’ mountaintop mansion have been empty for centuries: the old gods cleared out a long time ago. Bit by imperceptible bit, they outlived their usefulness. So they left the party. The marble temples that had overflowed with good booze, great food, and hot gossip went eerily quiet and dark.

Here’s the thing, though: we never lost our appetite for the gossip. Whatever else happens, people seem to crave the obsessive fun of behind-the-scenes drama. Sometimes it’s been the lords and ladies of Britain’s upper class. Sometimes it’s been the colonels and captains of the army. Sometimes it’s been the clergy. As humans, we want to stick our noses into every crack and crevice of someone else’s glitzy public life — doesn’t much matter whose. We want people who are larger than life, and we want to pry into their business. Downton Abbey and War and Peace, Trollope’s Palliser novels and Chandler’s Marlowe mysteries all feed that hunger. They all offer — among other things — an intimate window into the daily lives of the high and mighty. They show us every meaningless detail: what scotch LA moguls drink and how Lady Mary Crawley likes her hair done. And we want to know.

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So these days in America we’ve taken the Hollywood hills as our Mount Olympus. Those are the stories we devour and the lives we dissect: the star-studded escapades of our favorite A-listers. Just like the Greeks with their gods, we’re fascinated with everything, from the scandalous to the banal. What is Katy Perry wearing for Halloween? How did Jennifer Lawrence respond to her nude selfie hackers? Who’s seducing the newly-naughty Miley Cyrus? Those are effectively the same questions people used to ask about Apollo and Artemis, Hera and Persephone.

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The catch is, it works in the other direction too: to replace the gods with celebs, we have to make the celebs into gods. It’s not just anyone who can hold our fanatic attention like this — it’s only super-humans. We want to see people like us, but writ large, living out all our dreams and desires and flaws on an epic scale. That’s why the Greek gods — immortal and gorgeous, petty and fallible — were perfect for the part. That’s why, here in the UK where I’m studying, it’s often the royal family that shows up on checkout-counter magazine covers. The key to the thrill is the grandeur: people with spectacular wealth, power, and talent, examined on a minute, human level. Gods that look like us. So we elevate our movie stars and pop divas to that iconic status. We call Chris Hemsworth “flawless” and Jessie J “divine.” Beyoncé says “bow down,” and we do: she’s the queen. She’s a goddess.

There’s one big difference between us and the Greeks: our idols are real people. Miley Cyrus isn’t just the classic archetype of “all-American sweetheart gone bad” that she’s standing in for. She’s also a drugged-out girl getting shoved onstage half-conscious and half-clothed. Justin Bieber too, and Lindsey Lohan: they’re children who got dressed up as deities. Now, fair is fair: they’re also spoiled, slack-jawed, obnoxious criminals, ungrateful to their fans and even dangerously self-centered. But they didn’t start out that way. First they were crowned as gods, given everything they wanted. Then when being divine predictably turned them into uncontrollably irresponsible egomaniacs, the public tuned in to watch every second. Because that’s one of the best myths: the perfect god in a moment of entitled, petulant outrage. We love to watch the stars fall. Now, no one’s shedding a tear for Justin Bieber and his latest million-dollar investment. But for the sake of our own humanity, those of us watching at home could potentially stand to remember those are real folks up on our Mount Olympus. And divinity isn’t as fun as it sounds.

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image illustrations via herehereherehere