You are here

Lecture 4 Stages of Development—The Highest Nature-Religions

Lecture 4
Stages of Development—The Highest Nature-Religions
HAVING sketched the main features of the lowest nature-religions let us now proceed to the higher. The period of myth-formation with its unorganised polydæmonism and its magic rites still under the domination of Animism is succeeded by the period we call the mythological in which an organised polytheism is established; the world of gods now confined within definite limits is more and more humanised and the moral element thus ever more powerfully asserts its claims without however as yet attaining supremacy over nature.

At the outset it is necessary to add a word of explanation to this short description.

We have advanced from myth-formation to mythology. But this does not necessarily imply that at this stage myth-making is entirely at an end. Now and again a new myth arises or at all events the old myths are modified extended subdivided or applied to beings altogether different from those to which they once belonged; but the examples of new myths have become very rare and as I said in my former lecture on closer examination they will be found to consist of old material moulded anew. The imagination no longer delights to busy itself with the creation of myths as an explanation of striking phenomena or of those which affect human welfare—for people now begin to discover other and more rational explanations of them—but rather to transform them into poetical narratives of the world of the gods or into miraculous traditions and legends of a bygone age of which no historic records survive. An attempt is also now made to interpret them in accordance not with the original meaning but with the needs and views of the time and to build them up into a theogonic and cosmogonic system.
And now polydæmonism becomes polytheism. The difference between a demon a spirit and a god is not absolute. All the gods are indeed spirits but all the spirits are not gods. They do not become so until they have acquired not only a definite name and fixed function but a specific character a personality which clearly distinguishes them from other higher beings created by the poetic imagination or embodied in earthly form by the plastic art. These beings are now placed at the head of the higher world. The worship of the nature-spirits and of the souls of the deceased is not given up but rather gains in fervency and generally represents the emotional element in the cold and formal religion of the State. Even new spirits are now and then created as Aius Locutius when a heavenly voice was heard or Argentinus when silver coinage was introduced. But now these occupy a lower rank. They are subordinate to the world of the gods they are their servants messengers assistants retainers. They form the retinue which surrounds the deity of the province of nature to which they belong the army with which the god of war marches to battle. The souls of the dead have their own king in Yama or Osiris or Bel of the lower regions or Hadês while the privileged ones are associated with the gods of Light and heroes who have fallen on the battle-field are feasted in Valhalla by Odhin or received in Folkvang by Freya.
The gods themselves are also now arranged in genealogical and hierarchical order. An aristocracy springs up among them represented by a chosen band generally of seven as with the ancient Aryans the still united Indo-Iranians and the Assyrians or of twelve as with the Babylonians and the Greeks. Or the highest of them are arranged in triads as those of Anu Bel and Ea and of Sin Shamash and Rammân in Babylon imitated by the Greeks in their Zeus Hadês and Poseidôn. The Vedic gods afford the best example of such an aristocracy. The seven Adityas are not yet forgotten but other gods are placed by their side and partly above them; and it does not seem that Varuna the chief of them though styled samrâj or all-ruler exercises any real authority over Indra or Agni the most revered deities of the warriors and the priests. It was only after the Vedic society and religion had extended to the Brahmanic that Brahmâ was placed at the head of all the gods and was afterwards combined in a triad with Rudra S´iva and Vishnu the most revered of the national gods. Monarchical polytheism however soon becomes the commonest. One god rules as a sovereign over all the rest. He is either the god of the king's residence and seat of government like Ptah of Memphis and Amun-Râ of Thebes in Egypt Maruduk of Babylon or Assur in Assyria or he is the generally acknowledged god of the people like Zeus of the Hellenes or he has both these qualifications like Jupiter Optimus Maximus Capitolinus. This monarchic polytheism is nowhere so sharply defined as in the Homeric god-world. There Zeus is king of kings the unlimited autocrat. He cannot indeed resist fate but fate is really his own will Dios aisa Dios moira. Apollo the beloved son and Athêna the daughter sprung from his head the spoiled child indulged by the father in everything rank indeed next to him nearer even than Hêra who sometimes conspires against him and who belongs in fact to an earlier category of gods; but they do not govern with him they have only to obey and are hardly more than personifications of his revelation and his mind. Around him on weighty occasions he assembles his βουλὴ the council of the gods but they only come to Olympus to hear his will and they have no voice in the matter. And who does not remember the famous passage at the beginning of the 8th book of the ‘Iliad’ where the great Olympian in his wrath challenges all the gods and goddesses to take hold of the golden chain which he lets down from heaven that he alone may hurl all of them together around Olympus' top in order to show them that his alone is all power in heaven and earth which neither man nor god can resist.
Thus the ever-changing crowd of divine beings is succeeded by a well-defined order of gods who rule over the motley system. And these gods become more and more humanised. We shall soon see that all this took place gradually and not all at once. But as this humanising process advanced the power of the moral element in mythology grew with it. If the gods though superior to men in might and knowledge of higher nature and immortal could no longer be represented otherwise than in human form thinking feeling and acting like men it was impossible to avoid also attributing to them those moral qualities which people had learned to appreciate in their fellow-men. This was however but a defective and illogical union of the natural with the ethical. Stories are told of the gods originally powers of nature which are not very compatible with their functions as vindicators of righteousness truth and purity. Rude but harmless nature-myths transferred from the blind powers of nature to beings held up as human ideals become repugnant to a more developed sense of morality and several of the philosophers were not slow to point out the strange inconsistency. And accordingly so long as the supremacy of the ancient gods lasted the ethical element could not really triumph and the religions which continued to worship these gods necessarily remained nature-religions although closely approaching the confines of the ethical.
This progress also reveals itself in the growing desire to organise and regulate ritual as well as doctrine or at least to make it more uniform among the same people and to substitute symbolic or other observances for rites whose sensuousness and barbarity began to shock the awakened moral feeling of the younger generation. How is this progress to be accounted for? If we simply reply that it was a result of the general development of mankind the answer is correct but it is too indefinite to throw light on the subject. It is quite true that the general causes which always and everywhere promote religious development were at work in this case also: such as progress in rational thought which curbs the unbridled fancy and its wild aberrations; progress in knowledge of nature and mankind which compels people to abandon some of their too crude notions and removes to a greater distance the boundaries of the unknown wonderland of the spirits; progress in human self-consciousness which made the permanent veneration of the lower idols impossible and led to the ascription of human and particularly of moral qualities to the higher beings. Or to use a common figure we might simply say that mankind had passed out of childhood into youth. But the immediate cause is due to great social changes the formation of ordered states and communities conscious of their unity. The motley spirit-world of the animistic religions ever liable to change unregulated and indeed anarchical could no longer be satisfactory when tribes hitherto independent and mostly hostile had combined to form a great and more or less consolidated league; when states either under monarchical or other form of government had been constituted; and when even the idea of national unity coupled with a plurality of state-institutions had come into vogue. People then felt the necessity of introducing order into the superhuman world also and to figure it as a heavenly state monarchical federal oligarchic or sometimes even democratic—in so far at least as according to some myths the gods choose and appoint their head who however then reigns as an unlimited dictator. Above all the details of the public ritual now require to be regulated by the State which usurps all authority that is at first by the sovereign. He the high priest of the community like the head of the family in his own house soon delegated his religious functions to some of his servants who were thus invested with a certain spiritual authority and who resented all interference from outsiders. And thus there next arose out of and above the countless traditions of families and tribes which were naturally treated rather arbitrarily the tradition of the greater community recorded in the songs and narratives of the national poets treasured up systematised and taught by priests and scholars and utilised by the rulers for the maintenance and justification of their authority. The whole of the mythological period of ordered polytheism is dominated in the religious sphere and perhaps in others too by tradition.
The transition to this period from the preceding was very gradual. Several of the religions which distinctly belong to the earlier development show an inclination to raise themselves above the defective notions and barbarous institutions of Animism. Thus it is recorded of Netzalcuatl a Mexican prince of Tezcuco that he built a temple of nine storeys for the god of gods the first cause of all dwelling above the ninth heaven a temple in which none of the images or bloody sacrifices so common in Mexico were tolerated. So too we hear of Tupac Yupanqui the Peruvian Inca who erected a temple for a god in whom he merged the three highest spirits of his monarchy (Illatici-Viracocha-Pachacamac) on the ground that he could not regard the Sun the chief national god as truly the highest but as a mere servant as otherwise he would not voluntarily traverse the same path every day. But the peoples over whom they ruled were no more ripe for such reforms than were the subjects of the Emperor Joseph II. for his; and besides there soon came the Spaniards who with fire and sword bull-dogs and inquisition converted the Mexicans and Peruvians to Christianity (of a kind) which made an end of all the higher and lower naturistic speculations.
But what conduced more than these sporadic indications of higher longings to facilitate the transition from polydæmonism to organised polytheism was the fact that in the most advanced animistic religions the spirits were already arranged. The form or pattern of this arrangement is the family. For from the first-named period date several families of gods in which places are assigned to all the principal spirits as children and descendants of a wedded pair. This pair usually consists of the god of Heaven and the goddess of the Earth; though sometimes the heaven is regarded as feminine and the earth as masculine as for example in Egypt where the earth-god Seb is wedded to the heaven-goddess Nut. But we must not attach too ideal a significance to this fatherhood of the highest god or regard it as a glimmering of the Gospel idea of “the adoption of sons” (υἱοθϵσία) and of a divine sonship an interpretation which is excluded by the mythical conception of the marriage of the two supreme gods. These are simply the heads of the family of the leading spirits descended from them; and the fact that men but of course members of the same folk only are supposed to be mediately at least descended from them is one to which we cannot yet attach any higher ethical importance. Besides this mythical pair there frequently occurs a divine mother or grandmother as sole head of the spirit-world. Perhaps this idea preceded the other. It is at all events certain that it arose out of the matriarchate a social system in which the woman is the sole head of the household. Both ideas have passed into the polytheistic systems in which the family of the gods already forms an organised state. As an instance of the one I need only mention the Egyptian Hathor and the Ishtar and Ashtarte so widely diffused in Western Asia who as the great Mater Deorum of Asia Minor was even carried to Rome and with whom the Argelian Hêra the Ephesian Artemis the great Dêmêter and other Greek and semi-Greek goddesses show great affinity. As instances of the other may be named the Egyptian Seb the earth-god and Nut the highest goddess who were superseded by Râ and Osiris kings of the gods and the Vedic Dyaus-pitar and Pṛthivî-matar thrust entirely into the background by the kings Varuna and Indra; and while Zeus father of gods and men is himself elevated to the kingship the somewhat shadowy and but little personified Ouranos and Gaia Heaven and Earth themselves become his grandparents the barbaric gods Kronos and Rhea belonging to a different system of gods become his parents and instead of his proper consort Dionê he receives the mother-goddess Hêra as his wife. No wonder as already remarked that his union with this self-willed Despoina who had hitherto been wont to reign supreme was not always a very peaceful one.
A peculiar example of a very gradual transition from these families of gods to the divine polities of organised polytheism is afforded by the religions of the Ural-Altaic peoples especially that of the Finns which under Scandinavian-Germanic influence has attained a higher stage than any of the others. We might call these the Patriarchal. The gods are usually called father and mother grandfather and grandmother and as a special honour they receive a title which in the native language means “the old ones”—that is the wise and venerable. The Finnish Pantheon is in fact a tribal or family league under more or less powerful chiefs but without the slightest hierarchical order. Though side by side they are independent of each other and each has his own domain over which the others have no jurisdiction. In accordance with the wish he cherishes or the help he thinks needful the believer invokes the god of the earth of the sea or of the forest; and only when disappointed of succour from the deity from whom it was most expected he appeals to Ukko the god of heaven as the mightiest of all who is able to help when all others fail:—
“Ukko thou O God of Heaven!
Ukko come thou art invoked!
Ukko come we need thee sorely!”
This invocation occurs frequently in the ‘Kalevala’ the epic poems of the Finns. The religions of the Ural-Altaians are indeed still in the animistic stage; their gods are really nothing but sorcerer-spirits and they act by sorcery. But they lie on the confines of polytheism confines which the Finns alone owing to their intercourse with the neighbouring Germanic peoples have occasionally overstepped.
Closest to the other side of the boundary lie several religions which must be ranked among ordered polytheisms because though strongly tinctured with Animism they are no longer dominated by it. To this class probably belongs the ancient religion of the Chinese empire and that of the “Sumerians” or ancient dwellers in Babylonia so many features of which have passed over into the Semitic-Babylonian. But of these we know too little to enable us to speak with certainty. To the same class belong most of the ancient cults of Western Asia with their obscene and barbaric rites and their tree and stone worship the primitive Hellenic and the primitive Latin and highly developed as it was the Egyptian with its interminable magic and mysticism its countless amulets and fetishes its worship of animals and the souls of the dead which was nowhere in the civilised world (unless in this last respect among the Chinese) so highly and minutely elaborated.
Within the period of ordered Polytheism there are also two distinct steps of development the Therianthropic and the Anthropical or semi-ethical. The term Therianthropic—from thêrion animal and anthrôpos man—is applied to the religions in which the same god is conceived at one time as a man at another as an animal but is generally represented in half-animal half-human form whether as a man with an animal's head or as an animal with a human head. The former of these figures prevails in Egypt the latter in West Asia but not without exceptions. The animals are either real or mythical and are sometimes very composite monsters. Living animals may be the representatives of the gods on earth a pledge of their presence their embodiment but they must be very special examples of their kind distinguished by certain marks and supposed to have been born in a supernatural manner. Thus each of the chief Egyptian gods possessed both within and without his sanctuary his sacred beast which was revered as the god himself. To insult or to slay such an animal was the height of sacrilege. When the sacred bull of Hapi at Memphis was wounded by Cambyses and died on the following day his crime sufficed to impel the Egyptians who had long groaned under foreign yokes and had lost all energy to revolt against the Persian domination; and Darius his successor who restored that domination acted with great political wisdom in purchasing at great cost and presenting to the Egyptians a new Hapi to replace one that had died during his reign. In the temples of Western Asia such animals were also kept; but there the animal-images of the gods predominated these being either entirely in animal form like the bulls of Ba῾al and those of Yahve at Dan and Bethel or in composite animal and human form like the Dagon of Ashdod and Gaza. It would be a mistake to regard this animal worship as mere symbolism. It was partly a survival from the ancient period but so far modified that each animal was associated with a chief god who was worshipped in it and further that the human form was combined with the distinctive animal's head or the animal's body with the distinctive human head. Human self-consciousness was now awakened but had not yet attained full supremacy. Strange as these forms appear to us this association with the lower animals was not supposed to degrade the gods but rather to differentiate them from men and to indicate their superiority. A primitive mysticism half unconsciously strove by these mysterious features borrowed from animal life to express the superhuman power of the deity. People feared indeed as the Greek historian has expressly related of the Phœnicians to represent their gods in wholly human form lest they should thus place them on a level with their worshippers.
This is also the reason why the ethical ideas which were ever advancing towards consciousness could not yet be received into the doctrine. Morality was however connected with religion. Moral treatises which occur in Egypt at a very remote period appeal to the deity in order to enforce their precepts. In Babylon too before religion had there attained its highest development when people violated the moral law they felt that they were guilty before God. Even in religions of the therianthropic phase the gods are vindicators of righteousness and justice and men are responsible to them for their actions. But the ethical element is merely placed beside the religious not incorporated with it. Nor could this be otherwise because it was as yet regarded as heteronomous as a law arbitrarily imposed on men. The gods indeed require this law to be observed because they must be obeyed; but they may exempt any one they choose and they are not themselves bound by it. It is an instrument of discipline for man but they are exalted above any such restraint. Moreover in man's relationship towards them the same rules do not apply as in his intercourse with his fellow-men. They punish murder and debauchery; yet men and particularly children are sacrificed to them; and rites which but for the sanction of religious tradition would even then have been condemned as licentious and barbarous are performed in their honour. These are called and rightly religious survivals; they could not however have survived but for the fact that men honestly thought that the deity was above the law that he could require from his worshippers everything that really belonged to him; and that in order to propitiate him they must not hesitate to sacrifice to him their dearest possessions the lives of their children and the chastity of their daughters. Even in Israel which had already entered on a higher phase of development the moral earnestness of the prophets did not avail without the occasional co-operation of the kings to put a stop to those bloody sacrifices of children which prevailed before the great purification effected by the Captivity.
But even the Polytheistic religions do not all stop at this point. In some of them the human element predominates over the animal although this supremacy is but gradually attained. Blended animal and human forms of gods descend to the lower rank of servants and subordinate spirits and sometimes to that of terrible monsters. The animals themselves are now placed by the side of the gods—who are now conceived as purely human though in power and wisdom superhuman—as their satellites messengers and symbols. For the barbaric rites substitutes are now sought. The conflict between light and darkness life and death spring and winter fertility and drought which formed the subject of the ancient myths now becomes the triumphant struggle of gods conceived as ideal immortal men with overwhelming powers of nature; while these powers represented as giants dragons and monsters if not torn to pieces like Tiâtmat mother of nature by Maruduk leader of the gods as in the Babylonian cosmogony are at least fettered and hurled into Tartarus as the Titans and Giants were by Zeus. And observe that it is not mere physical superiority which enables the gods to triumph. When Tiâmat prepares to defend her sole supremacy against the growing power of the young gods and to annihilate them the very highest of them decline to enter the lists against her and even the brave Maruduk who dares to place himself at the head of the heavenly army quails for a moment in terror when he is confronted with the monster with her retinue of snakes scorpions birdmen and roaring tempests. The Thursas and Jötuns the Giants of the Scandinavian mythology are indeed physically stronger than the Asas and Vans and are skilful sorcerers besides. When the Asas enter upon a contest with them in eating and drinking they get the worst of it. But Thor although they scoff at his diminutive figure extorts from them a certain respect by the proofs he gives them of his muscular strength and appetite although he does not succeed in drinking up the whole ocean or in hauling up out of the sea the Midhgardh serpent which encircles the world. But in the end the smaller and weaker beings are victorious owing to their prudence and co-operation and owing to a certain superiority of spirit which can be felt rather than seen or explained. For the first time there is revealed in these myths an awakened but somewhat hazy consciousness of the superiority of the human mind over nature.
With that consciousness is necessarily coupled and there is indeed implied in it a feeling of moral preponderance which results in an ethical movement ever increasing in importance and power. That the ethical element is now more and more pronounced in religion is manifested in different ways.
It manifests itself in the first place in the fact that men now venture to criticise and to repudiate some of the actions imputed to the gods by the myths. This occurs at a very early period. Let me mention a few examples. In the curious narrative of the flood of the Babylonians which forms the eleventh book of their Epos the great Bel of the lower regions in accord with the sombre character ascribed to him by the Babylonian theology has executed the judgment decreed by the gods. The whole of mankind must be annihilated but another chief god the good-natured creator whose name is usually spelled Êa in the ancient language and is perhaps the same as the Assyrian Shalman the Saviour has warned a pious worshipper one of his favourites of the impending calamity; whereupon the latter with his whole tribe takes refuge in a great covered vessel and thus preserves the germ of a new humanity. Old Bel is furious when he discovers this. He is not even invited to the sacrifice offered to the gods by the rescued people after they had left their vessel which had run aground on Mount Niṣir. The Sun-god who sees everything reveals to him how he has been tricked. In his fury he then goes to call Êa to account for his violation of the divine decree in which he himself had concurred. Êa begins with evasive answers but soon turns the tables upon him. It is not he but Bel who has acted inexcusably. It was an unjust judgment which condemned the good and evil the pious and impious alike. And would he still wish to destroy the remnant of humanity? That would be an aggravation of the injustice. Had he not plenty of other means at his disposal pestilence famine war and wild beasts of punishing sinners but sparing the righteous? Bel allows himself to be convinced; he himself leads forth the rescued ones and grants them his pardon. And thus the sense of justice which rebelled against such indiscriminate punishment was satisfied. In another book of the same Epos Ishtar the goddess of Uruk offers her hand to the hero who had gained a royal crown by delivering his people from the oppression of the Elamites. But he declines the honour and in a very rude manner. Ishtar belongs to the matriarchal goddesses who choose their own husbands and keep them only so long as they please. And now her new choice overwhelms her with reproaches for the cruel treatment to which she had subjected her former favourites a fate to which he did not wish to expose himself. As a matter of course the presumptuous hero pays the penalty of his audacity. The poet could not represent the matter otherwise. A deity of whatever rank cannot be insulted with impunity; and Ishtar accordingly retained her place in the Assyrian and Babylonian cult to the end. But the disrespectful speech put by the poem into the mouth of the hero gives vent to a feeling of moral disgust at the cruelties which at an earlier period as the mythical attributes of phenomena of nature had given no offence but now when ascribed to a personal deity at least caused surprise. It is a curious fact that in the Edda the very same reproaches are directed against the Scandinavian Ishtar and indeed against all the principal Asas but this time not by a hero or demigod but by Loki the enfant terrible of the gods who however is also severely punished for his temerity. The ancient Babylonian example proves that it is not absolutely necessary to ascribe this disparaging treatment of the gods to Christian influence by which some scholars are inclined nowadays to account for a considerable part of the Scandinavian mythology. Similar cases may quite well occur in a nature-religion of a higher stage. Nor do we require to refer to Christian ideas the miserable fate of the god Loki just mentioned. This leads us to consider another and more striking manifestation of moral feeling in the religion of this period. I have just mentioned that Ishtar in spite of the wicked part she plays in the Epos retained her place in the Babylonian and Assyrian worship to the end. The same may be said of the Bel of the lower regions. Thus the service of the Olympian gods did not suffer from the fact that the poets of the ‘Iliad’ and the ‘Odyssey’ which were read by all the Greeks described their vagaries their quarrels their intrigues and their foibles with a certain approval. Nor was the cult of Hephæstus and Ares and least of all that of Aphroditê impaired by the fact that Demodocus in the ‘Odyssey’ hangs up a comic picture of the misdoings of the deities of love and war and of the revenge of the injured husband who on another occasion when he limped about as the cup-bearer of the Olympians made them burst out into uncontrollable laughter. But such was not always the result. Some of the gods have been deprived of their honour and majesty. Hadês the sombre god of the lower regions was still served but not more than absolutely necessary and when people passed his temple they averted their faces. The Germanic Loki once one of the three highest gods who accompanied the supreme god Odhin in all his expeditions ever roguish sometimes bringing the Asa-world to the brink of ruin by his tricks but managing to save it at the last moment became an evil spirit who was shunned by all and doomed to everlasting torture for his misdeeds. The same thing happened at a much earlier period in the case of the Egyptian god Set. Hateful as was the part played by him the god of death in the Osiris myth—one of two principal myths of the Egyptian creed in which he figures as his brother's murderer—yet for many centuries he was no less revered than his brother and some of the kings of the nineteenth dynasty even delighted to take his name and to delineate his features as the god who “taught their hands to war.” But shortly afterwards Set became a dreaded demon whose name the people erased from the monuments and whose image they tried to transform into that of some other god. Lastly the result produced among the Iranian peoples by a great reform—namely that the Daêvas the beings once revered as heavenly gods of light were banished to the kingdom of darkness as lying spirits and devils—occurred in India in the case of the Asuras. In the Veda the name of Asura is the highest title of the chief gods and in the form of Ahura it continued to be the title of the one supreme god in the system of Zarathushtra. But even within the Vedic period the word is frequently applied to certain evil magical spirits; and the Asuras afterwards become the crafty and dangerous enemies of the Daêvas who are no longer worshipped but abhorred.
But this purification of the world of the gods and this incidental criticism of their acts were insufficient to satisfy the growing demands of moral feeling. An attempt was now made to meet these demands by giving the nature-myths an ethical significance or even by modifying then according to ethical principles. The former attempt was made at a very early period as is proved by the myths of Hêraklês and Promêtheus among many others. Both of these are very ancient gods although one of them descended to the rank of the heroes or so-called demigods. The other was ranked among the Titans. Yet both and particularly Hêraklês were very generally worshipped as gods and being considered the greatest benefactors of the human race they were more beloved than many of the other gods. The Hêraklês myth is one of the richest in the rich Greek mythology. It would require quite a series of lectures to discuss it and even a short survey would encroach too much upon our allotted time. I shall therefore confine myself to the chief points and only found upon what is commonly accepted. Hêraklês is generally considered to be an ancient god of the sun or hero of the sun serving willingly or unwillingly who like Io the melancholy wandering goddess of the moon is hated and persecuted by Hêra the jealous queen of heaven; but after a life of incessant strife and suffering toil and humiliation for the benefit of mankind he is received into the sphere of the Olympians by Zeus the god of heaven as the most beloved of his sons. Such is no doubt the story of Hêraklês according to classical mythology but I believe it took shape under the influence of certain oriental gods and their myths. The original Hellenic god was of a different character more nearly resembling the Thor-Donar the Germanic god of thunder. But we need not discuss this point further. It is admitted on all hands that the ancient indigenous Hêraklês myths were characterised by barbaric rudeness. This divine hero is usually a wrestler and a boxer and he is therefore the patron of athletes and the founder of the Olympian games. His favourite weapon is the club. He is a genuine Jötun or Thursa even surpassing the Centaurs as an eater and drinker and a veritable Berserker besides destroying everything in his fits of fury and even slaying his own children. As the god of fertility he is the special patron of the husbandman the vine-grower and the herdsman in which capacity he also resembles Thor. Of his prodigious physical strength and of his exuberant animal spirits the most incredible stories are told. In short he is an ideal of bodily strength and gigantic power the ideal of a young half-civilised people to whom they looked up as an averter of disasters (Alexikakos) and as the conqueror (Kallinikos) of all the monsters and hostile beings conceived as embodiments of the dreaded powers of nature. What then did the religious needs of later generations when manners were softened and higher civilisation demanded other ideals make of this rude fighter? What did the ethical speculations of philosophers and theologians make of him especially after his personality and his myth had been enriched under the influence of foreign elements? The theologians taught that he had to suffer all these things and to accomplish all his toilsome tasks in order to expiate his heinous guilt and that he was not received into the sphere of the gods until he had triumphantly overcome all his trials. The philosophers make him a noble Sufferer who voluntarily from love to man took upon him his heavy yoke and when a youth standing at the crossways where Virtue invited him to follow her and Pleasure enticed him unhesitatingly chose the former path: a moral ideal of Cynics and Stoics alike and in whose name a widely diffused fraternity of devotees was founded. And the sculptors too while adhering to his ancient type as a muscular combatant girded with a lion's skin and leaning on his club throw an expression of profound melancholy into his features characteristic of the suffering hero.
The myth of Promêtheus is also obviously an ancient nature-myth that of the theft of fire common to all the Aryans and perhaps to other peoples also while he himself is the god of the domestic and sacrificial fire closely associated with Hephæstus the great god of the fire of the mechanical arts and with the lightning goddess Athêna born from the head of Zeus. The mythologists did not at first regard him with favour. He is an arrant robber a crafty rogue (ἀγκυλομήτης) who is ever attempting to trick the great god Zeus ever opposing him in his presumptuousness and even seeking to equal him. According to Hesiod he has not even conferred a boon on humanity with his fatal gift and it therefore only serves him right to be chained to a pillar with an eagle devouring his liver which grows anew every night and to undergo this unendurable torment until Hêraklês succeeds in procuring his pardon and release. But Æschylus tells quite a different story. He represents Promêtheus as one of the benefactors of the human race to whom men are indebted for their dominion over nature and the blessings of a higher civilisation. Although the poet is a sincere believer who regards Zeus as the greatest and mightiest god and also as the wise sovereign he is in full sympathy with the bold Titan who from self-sacrificing love to mankind dares to withstand the supreme ruler; and he lovingly delineates him as a model of nobility and loftiness of character. The fearful suffering to which he is condemned is rather the tragic fate of one who has dared to try conclusions with a superior power for the salvation of others than the merited penalty of a wicked man; and the fettered hero consoles himself with the thought that even the sovereignty of Zeus will one day have an end. We may be surprised that the poet did not perceive the inconsistency between his sympathetic portraiture of the rebellious Titan and his belief in the goodness and justice of the father of gods and men; yet we cannot deny that in his striking creation he reveals a noble human self-consciousness and a pure and lofty moral sentiment.
The poets do not however rest satisfied with putting an ethical construction on nature-myths. They go a step further. They take great liberties with the myths themselves and modify them in accordance with their ethical principles. Each of them does this in his own way. Pindar suppresses the objectionable features of the myths or strives to save the honour of the gods by explaining them on rational grounds. He cannot credit the myth that Tantalus served up his son to the gods and that at least one of them partook of it; it was Poseidôn who had carried off the youth and thrown the blame on the father. Sometimes he entirely rejects the tradition in order that he may not be obliged to admit that the gods quarrelled with each other. Æschylus as we have seen carries his hearers into the heart of the myth reveals to them its moral earnestness and reconciles it as far as possible with the wants of his age. Sophoklês the most ethical of the three (ἠθικώτατος) adheres more faithfully to the form of the myths but humanises them. His heroes are more human than those of Æschylus and expiate the guilt they had unwittingly incurred like Œdipus or that of others like Antigonê by voluntary suffering rather than disobey the unwritten but eternal and immutable laws of Zeus which no one may violate at the behest of their fellow-men. Euripidês unduly depreciated of late by German critics but defended by men like Mahaffy Symonds and Robert Browning may have been inferior to the two other great tragedians as a dramatist but he surpassed them as a philosophical thinker. We do not find in him the serene harmony of Sophoklês but conflict a constant struggle with doubts which he cannot always silence. Between his thought and his art—for tragedy had a religious character and doubtless required to conform to the popular creed—there was a gulf which he could not bridge over and from which he shrank. Too enlightened to acquiesce in tradition he was too religious to rest satisfied with its disavowal; and sometimes his religious sentiment gets the better of him as when he describes the fate of Pentheus who was doomed to perish because in spite of the divine tokens he refused to honour Dionysus. The case of Euripidês shows better than any other how the more enlightened without perhaps being fully conscious of it had grown out of the worship of the nature-religions and how they tried to reconcile it with their philosophical and ethical convictions though not with entire success.
But they could not go so far as the philosophers. When philosophers spoke of a god the greatest among gods and men unlike mortals either in form or in spirit such doctrine could neither be tolerated by the official representatives of religion nor approved by believers like Pindar. According to him men are infinitely inferior to the gods at the mercy of fate ignorant of their future; yet “one is the race of men and one of gods and from one mother we both draw our breath.” Exalted above old age sickness and death blessed and almighty the gods are nevertheless not wholly unlike men in origin bodily form and mental powers.
And from their point of view these poets and believers were right. Had they abandoned their creed they would have sacrificed one of the indispensable elements of religion—the belief in the inter-relation that subsists between God and man notwithstanding the infinite superiority of God.
And accordingly the attempt to elevate the higher nature-religions to the rank of ethical religions by a process of gradual development did not succeed. These nature-religions had reached the extreme boundary; yet they remained semi-ethical only and destitute of any harmonious union of the ethical and the natural elements a union only to be approached after a long course of development. Thus far the conception of God had been purified elevated and spiritualised as far as was possible. Other nations had anticipated the Greeks in this. Sometimes we find the Theban prophets extolling their Amun-Râ or the Babylonian royal scribes their Bel-Maruduk in language which the Hebrew prophets would not have disdained to apply to the Holy One of Israel. Throughout the penitential psalms of Babylon breathes a deep sense of guilt. Words full of consolation are addressed to the last of the great monarchs of Ashur: “Thy sins O Ashurbanipal! like the waves of the sea shall be obliterated; like the vapours on the face of the earth they shall melt away before thy feet!” The highest of the gods are neither created nor born but have created themselves (banû ramnishṷ khoper t´esef). Such was the doctrine taught on the banks of the Euphrates and the Tigris and such on the banks of the Nile. How the Greeks strove to unite in Zeus all the attributes of the Almighty all-wise and good governor of the world—what they made of Apollo the god of light in whom are combined the highest qualities of great genius artistic inspiration wisdom self-knowledge and genuine humanity and who had become the revealer of the divine will the atoner of guilt and the inspirer of the higher life—how the ancient nature-goddess Athêna whom we find already transferred by Homer from the domain of nature to that of spiritual life became the Parthenos the virgin goddess ever acting with prudence in war and peace patroness of science and art representative of the rich Hellenic civilisation which culminated at Athens and of the spiritual light which radiated thence throughout the whole world and was not even extinguished by the downfall of the ancient Greek people—all this is too well known to require more than a single word to recall it. But all this was unavailing. The gods were still too much of nature-gods; their service was still too reminiscent of the phenomena and powers of nature of which they had once been personifications; they were above all too heavily weighted with myths which no longer suited the higher ethical stage now reached ever to become pure ethical deities. In order that a nature-religion may give birth to an ethical a reform is necessary; and this reform must not only substitute a spiritual ethical personal god for the nature-gods but must resolutely break with the old forms retaining only as many of them as are consistent with the higher principles upon which it is founded. How such religions come into existence and how they develop I shall endeavour to indicate in the following lecture.