General remarks — Limitation of subject — Previous factors — Archaeology — ‘The Greek spirit’ — Religion and statecraft — Worship and mythology — Superstition — Divination — Stages of culture — Morality.
IN answer to one who remarked, ‘my chief desire is to leave the world a little better than I found it,’ the late Lord Tennyson replied, ‘my chief desire is to have a new vision of God.’ That was the aspiration of a poet, who had something also of prophetic fire. Another thinker of our time once said, ‘the deepest want of our age is to have a new definition of God.’ Such indeed is the ever-recurring want of humanity in passing from one stage of enlightenment to another, and this is a cause of the perplexity which inevitably haunts the mind in approaching a subject such as that which is here proposed—the religious element in Greek literature. The acceptance of each new form of belief implies that our predecessors were mistaken, and if we look back far enough their leading thoughts assume an air of grotesque or even repulsive absurdity. However firmly we may rely upon our convictions, there is something in this discovery which is not comforting, and is apt to shake the foundations of religious belief.
Some minds are led to doubt if there be a supreme reality at all, and so to question the existence of any binding rule of life. They are tempted to think that, through a series of phantastic impressions, our race is being lured onward to the ‘dark tower’ of nonentity. Others would tell us that God teaches through illusion, that error leads the way to Truth: but the ‘husk’ has no meaning unless the ‘kernel’ is already there in germ. The words of St. Paul at Athens, ‘that they should seek the Lord if haply they might feel after him and find him,’ suggest a more satisfactory solution. In the wildest aberrations of the religious consciousness there is yet a groping after the supreme, a craving desire to realise what is more and mightier than man, and to find a support whereon his weakness may rely. There would be no progress if there were no shadows to be done away. Our aim should be to bring out from amidst their grosser surroundings those broken lights of higher things which come to us refracted through the thoughts of men:
Which all touch upon nobleness despite
Their error, all tend upwardly, though weak,
Like plants in mines which never saw the sun,
But dream of him, and guess where he may be,
And do their best to climb and get to him.
The late Dr. Hatch, in his able course of Hibbert Lectures, unfortunately posthumous, has drawn out in detail what has long been known, the fact that historical Christianity owes much of its intellectual form to Greek traditions; as it is no less certain that its ecclesiastical organisation is largely due to the influence of Imperial Rome. But it is not to be supposed that the value of the ideas thus historically assimilated has been exhausted in a process which was to a great extent accidental. It is at least worth while to trace the course of the stream from which so much has been derived. The Hellenism which became absorbed into Christian theology was Hellenism already in its decline: a form of culture from which, in the endeavour to systematise it, and to reconcile tradition with contemporary thought, much of what was originally essential had disappeared, or had been modified by a fresh influx of Orientalism. The knowledge that an Hellenic element enters into our actual inheritance should rather stimulate us to look back upon the times from whence that element came down, to study it as it was in its prime, and try to understand the living minds in which the conceptions that were essential to it first arose.
If in the earliest articulate utterance of the Hellenic spirit we discern a profound conviction that the Power which is supreme sends down inevitable redress of wrong, guards jealously the family bond, protects the suppliant and the stranger, and tempers even just vengeance with deep human pity; if as history advances the conviction of the divinity of justice and of the nobleness of self-devotion clears and widens more and more; if a yearning after religious purity springs up unbidden, and suggests a brightening hope of future blessedness; if, as thought awakens, the human spirit, weary of the play of imagination, and prompted by some divinely kindled spark, begins consciously to reach after ‘the One,’ ‘the Whole,’ ‘the True’;—even if we stopped here and went no further, shall we be told that this straggling of noble hearts and minds to live and think aright is all in vain, that they were pressing towards no goal; or that because about the same time, or a little earlier, another race of whom the Greeks knew nothing, by a sort of parallel evolution, were developing out of an old tribal worship other modes of consciousness, under holier inspirations and amidst a fiercer furnace of affliction, can we therefore afford to discard the ‘thoughts that breathe and words that burn’ of the Hellenic race, or rest contented with some feeble and distorted imitation of their works of decorative art, and not rather accept as part of our inheritance, to be inwrought into the Christianity of the future, ‘whatsoever things are venerable, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue and if there be any praise’? In that familiar catalogue, which is correctly rendered on the margin of the Authorised Version, the Apostle, for once at least, is not hebraizing, but is employing terms which are characteristically Greek.
‘There is a spirit in man; and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth them understanding.’
That does not mean that progress is by any means continuous. All growth is liable to interruption and temporary declension; and the question, what is the culminating point, is not always easy to determine. Every forward step leaves something fair and good behind it, not to be recaptured. The history of religion, to be at all faithful, must take account of checks and drawbacks. For nations, as for individuals, there are moments when custom presses on them with a weight
Heavy as frost and deep almost as life.
The stream while growing fuller does not always become clearer as it advances; but it would be in the highest degree irrational to infer that there is no goal of perfection towards which aspiration, enlightened by experience, tends. If this were denied, the task we propose to ourselves would be impossible; any record that covers a long period makes it manifest that the path of human development is onward on the whole. This ‘weight of custom’ presses deep, but life is deeper yet—eppur si muove. And the later stages may often throw back light upon the earlier, and win for them a more favourable interpretation. Thus the worship of a cruel deity may be interpreted as a sort of dumb pleading with a severe but merciful creator, and in the deepening gloom of the Greek Hades there is an earnest of something better in reserve than that other world, a faded duplicate of this, which to the men of the stone age had been a vivid and satisfying reality.
The ‘new definition’ still awaits the hour and the man. The present generation can only prepare the way for it; and to have done so in however humble a degree will be the chief honour of Lord Gifford's bequest. My predecessor in the Gifford Lectureship, Professor Caird, now Master of Balliol, has put forth a comprehensive survey of the Evolution of Religion in universal history, Professor Tiele, from a different point of view, has expounded, with equal knowledge and ability, the elements of a Science of Religion. And Mr. Andrew Lang, the first St. Andrews Gifford lecturer, in his recent volume on ‘The Making of Religion,’ has put forth an independent hypothesis, supported by his extensive study of savage tribes. But in every such widely sweeping theory some things must inevitably be left out of view, and while the comparative treatment of religions is pregnant with important results, it is necessary as a previous condition that the religious development of the chief races of mankind should have been separately studied and delineated.
I do not propose, however, in the present volume to give anything like a complete account of Greek religion. Mr. Farnell's learned work on the ‘Cults of the Greek States’ supplies a want which has long been felt in England, and deals with the subject of Hellenic worship on lines that are more rational than those followed by many Continental writers. But there is still room for an attempt to exhibit in a continuous treatise the way in which the ritual and mythology reacted upon the higher minds in Hellas, as this is clearly reflected in classical Greek literature. The aim of my endeavour is to trace, not origins chiefly, but rather tendencies—not whence, but rather how and whitherward the religious consciousness in Greece was moving. What were the ruling thoughts in each successive age respecting that which was conceived as higher than man? How were those thoughts limited or frustrated, and what germs of further development were contained in them? What in the most general outline was the Hellenic contribution to the spiritual inheritance of humanity?
If in order to strengthen the foundations of religion and morality, we are to gather out of every civilisation what it contains of good, it is necessary in each case to go back to the period, not of crude beginnings (which explain little), but of originality and bloom—to learn the secret of the great masters from themselves. This is not less true of Greek culture than of Hebrew prophecy or of the great Oriental religions. But the attempt in this case is in some ways more difficult; partly because of the comparatively slight predominance obtained in Hellas by the priesthood, who, being mostly elective, and in any case local and unorganised, formed no separate caste, and had no interests apart from the other citizens. Freedom and consequent variation in development are marked characteristics of spiritual life in Greece. Hence the phenomena to be studied are extremely diverse, and a process of distillation is needed in order to bring out any clear result. Opinions thus obtained must always be given with an understood reservation. In speaking of the forms of thought, feeling or imagination belonging to an age, it is impossible to avoid giving to them a distinctness which they could not have for those who were under their immediate sway. Such statements, therefore, so far as they are justified, must be accepted as affording an incitement to the fresh study of the literature in itself, else they are apt to become a sort of caput mortuum, and to lose all suggestiveness and value.
In what follows I shall refer but rarely and from a distance to other religions. ‘Analogy,’ it has been said, ‘is a broken reed, which may often serve to point the way, but should not be used as a staff to lean upon.’ The air is full of generalisations gathered from a wide and various field, many of which may serve to guide and enlighten observation, but none of them can be regarded as exhaustive. The student of a particular culture may be grateful for their help and guidance, but to bring them prominently forward would only lead to confusion.
It is unavoidable, however, to refer briefly at the outset to recent speculations concerning prehistoric religion. For in all religions there are survivals from primitive times, and Greece is no exception to the rule. But in considering these, our desire will be to distinguish what is characteristic of the Greeks, as we know them, from the accidents of their inheritance, and to appreciate the fertile ingenuity of the Hellenic genius in adapting obsolete elements, whose meaning had faded, not only to new forms of beauty, but to the expression of deep thoughts of undying significance.
1. Primitive man, they tell us, felt himself to be surrounded by living powers akin to him yet other than himself, and fearing harm or seeking help from these, looked wistfully to inanimate objects which he endowed with life as having struck his fancy or inspired him with terror. There are not wanting traces of this, the simplest of all forms of worship, in Greek ritual and mythology. Whether it were really the earliest form or a subsequent undergrowth fortunately does not concern us.
A further stage hardly less strange to us, which the Greek of historic times had largely outgrown, is the worship of plants and animals. Of this there are many traces in Greek culture, yet hardly in the primeval forms of which our generation has heard and read so much. Some isolated phenomena (the names of the Sicyonian tribes for instance) have been thus explained, but such a mode of interpretation is apt to be extended too far. The absence of any clear remains of ‘totemism’ may be due to the fact that the tribal system had long since been supplanted by larger organisations, or to the original prevalence of patriarchal government. But it is still open to doubt whether the attribution of a mystic power to animals must of necessity in every case be associated with the assumption of blood relationship between the animal and the tribe.
In another sense the theory here referred to is suggestive of an important truth which has been recently made popular through the writings of the late Mr. Robertson-Smith. That man in society, whether the unit were the family or the tribe, was not moved to religious rites by fear alone, but that amongst the powers with which he imagined himself to be surrounded he selected one in whom he placed his confidence and hope, claiming him as an ally; that this power became to him the symbol of a common life, a rule of conduct, a preserver from the public enemy; and that his most solemn act was one of communion with his god and with his kindred,—is a conception which throws a flood of light on the inmost spirit of early worship. It explains the joyousness which attended every act of sacrifice, and reminds us that even in the earliest religion, which is thus distinguished from magic and superstition, there is an element not of fear only but of hope and love.
But to return to animal worship. That either in the hunting or the pastoral stage of culture, an intense interest should be felt in the animal life with which the people were associated for good or evil, is easily intelligible, and when no abstract expression has been found for ideas and attributes whose importance is notwithstanding felt, a rude symbolism is the most obvious vehicle of expression. The very simplicity of such symbolism, lending itself to various interpretations, is a fruitful source of misunderstanding. So with regard to tree worship, which may either be referred to the time when men lived on acorns or beech nuts, and so literally depended on the bounty of the tree, or may be connected, as it has often been, with another set of notions altogether (see below, section 3). Some instances, however, are too obvious to be mistaken. The power of water permeating all things, now as a torrent coming down with destructive force, now renewing the face of nature with generative influence, found its concentrated symbol in the bull, whose onset was irresistible, while he was the father of the herd. Earth, the genial mother of all living, whose kindly produce nourished youth and age, was thought of by an agricultural people as the sacred Cow: the god of light, in the imagination of a nomadic people, on similar grounds might take the form of a ram, and so on. On the other hand, those creatures who are the enemies of mankind, or of their works, the wolf that ravages the flocks, the boar that wastes the produce of the ground, would be sometimes propitiated as divine powers and sometimes sacrificed to the protecting deity. There were other ways in which wild animals had impressed the human imagination. Thus the lion, as the type of strength and courage, was the favourite symbol when these virtues, so important to a primitive race, could not otherwise find an adequate expression. However this may be, it is clear that the worship of animals and the strange rites attending it had an important influence on the growth of religion. There appear to have been acts of faith in which the worshippers sought to identify themselves with their god and to partake of his attributes, by donning the skins of lions, bulls, foxes, goats, and even asses. Such rites as these, whether indigenous or imported, left undoubted traces on Greek culture.
2. But animal worship is only one of many concurrent sources of religion in Greece; another is that strange phase of enthusiasm which appeared early at so many centres, and became so ineradicable, which arose from a sense of the mystery of continuous life, or, as Professor Jowett expressed it, ‘from man's wonder at his power of producing another in his likeness.’ Whether this came in from the north, south, east, or west, from Thrace, Syria, Egypt (as Herodotus thinks), or Libya (as Mr. Flinders Petrie suggests), makes little difference to our study of it in historic times. There are yet other forms of worship closely akin to this, involving the idea of sex and procreation, such as those which assume the opposition or parallelism of male and female powers, the primitive philosophy of a marriage between Heaven and Earth, and all its consequences. There is the whole range of phenomena having to do with the productiveness of cattle and of the ground, with seedtime and harvest, with the vintage and the winepress; all these are inevitable factors in early religion, and enter largely into the foundation of which Greek religion is the superstructure. The worship of Demeter, of Dionysus, and of Cybele, though coming from different centres, yet if traced back far enough seem to intertwine their roots in the tendencies thus arising, and were accordingly amalgamated in later times.
3. A higher influence also enters in, perhaps from the east, but yet to some extent probably operative in prehistoric times, the worship of the elements: the over-arching sky, the sun and moon, the constellations, the dawn, the cloud, the storm, the wind, the sea. Solar mythology has been somewhat discredited of late, and there is perhaps a danger of this factor being too much ignored. It is creeping in again, however, at another entrance, through speculations on Babylonian and Egyptian influence. In actual worship attributes derived from various sources were combined. Apollo is certainly a god of flocks and herds, but is not the shepherd also a watcher of the sky? Who is to assure us that a nomad people were insensible to skyey influences? Artemis is the patron of all wild creatures and of the chase. But may not the imagination of a tribe of hunters have been stirred by the sight of the moon, walking in brightness among the trees of the forest? Even if we must travel back to Chaldea for the origin of such impressions, are we not daily finding more evidence of very early contact between distant peoples?
A theory has been maintained according to which not only the orientation of Greek temples, but many features of Greek mythological tradition are due to the existence among the priestly caste of a knowledge of stellar phenomena, derived ultimately from Chaldea. These notions appear to me as yet to be very imperfectly substantiated, and, if the fact were so, it has had little perceptible influence on religion in Greek literature. This religion was not made by any priesthood, but by the singer whose motive was poetical and artistic, and the question for us is, not what traditions about the stars may have been held in a mystery by those who built the temples and fixed the seasons of great festivals, or impressed various emblems upon coins, but what thoughts, imaginations, and emotions were awakened in the minds of those who worshipped and who went their way relying on the priestly arrangement of the ceremonial, but thinking their own thoughts, and guided by the imagination of their poets. It must be owned that the priesthood kept their supposed secret well. The names of certain constellations are known to Hesiod and even to Homer, and the Prometheus of Aeschylus is said to have taught mankind the risings and setting of the stars. Arcturus and the Pleiads were allowed to mark certain seasons of the year; but it is strange—if astronomy and practical religion were from the first combined—that it should have been left for Aratus in the Alexandrian time to divulge the fact, in versifying the science of Eudoxus; and that the Lion Gate of Mycenae, if it symbolised the sun in Leo, should have faced north-west. It may be questioned whether the belief in stellar transformations, which became rife in Alexandrian times, is at all clearly traceable in Greek literature before Euripides (‘Helena’ 140).
4. Some persons find the origin of all religion in the worship of ancestors or of great men, who in their lifetime, for good or evil, had dominated a family or a tribe. There can be no doubt whatever that this element entered largely into Greek religion, although strangely enough there is hardly a vestige of it in Homer. But neither can this be taken as an exclusive principle from which everything can be deduced. Mr. Lang, in the volume above mentioned, has argued with considerable force, that the conception of a supreme creator, the author of good and redresser of wrong, arises quite independently of animism and ghost worship, at a very early stage of human culture.
All the factors I have mentioned are really present; they are all true causes, and they have acted and reacted on one another. It requires great caution, in dealing with phenomena so complex, to avoid tracing each of them to one of these various sources, and also—when we consider the sameness of human nature—not unduly to connect developments on Grecian soil with similar appearances in Babylonia, Phrygia or Egypt. There is a weighing of souls in the Egyptian ‘Book of the Dead,’ and there is a weighing of destinies in Homer. A favourite vein of speculation would regard the image of the balance in the Iliad as derived by tradition from the sacred writing of another people, some thousand years or so before. But it is surely conceivable that so natural a figure may have occurred independently at long intervals to different minds. The study of savage races is very useful as a caution against the rash identification of similar phenomena. But this caution also may be pushed too far, and we still wait for clearer evidence upon the subject.
The fascinating study of ‘origins’ is made more difficult, as I have hinted above, by the freedom of the growth of religious ideas in Hellas as compared with Egypt, or Palestine, or Persia, or any other land in which the priesthood obtained a dominant ascendency, and succeeded in stereotyping tradition. But this only renders the progress of religious ideas in Greece more interesting. No doubt if we could interview the priests of Delphi or Eleusis, as Herodotus professes to have conversed with the priests of Memphis, we should learn many things which neither poet nor philosopher has cared to record. But what we should gain by this would be less to our immediate purpose than what lies actually before us. For Greek religion as an historical fact—the contribution of Hellas to the spiritual life of humanity—has been transmitted, not through priestly tradition, but by the living voices of poets, historians, orators, philosophers. This is itself, of all the facts, the most characteristic. Greece was from first to last, beginning with the fathers of epic poetry, the home of spiritual freedom. The singer was himself a sacred person, owing allegiance principally to the muse and comparatively independent of other observances. Priest, soothsayer, king, herald, and warrior, were all contemplated by him with disinterested objectivity. He reflects the mind of his age; he has also inspirations which reach far beyond it. Homer, in point of human feeling, was as untrammelled as Plato in philosophic thought. The Greeks had no period in their historical development corresponding to the age of Ezra among the Hebrews, or to the predominance of the Theban priesthood in Egypt, or to Indian Brahmanism, or the late revival of Zoroastrian ritual in Persia. Such periods have given to those civilisations an appearance of immovable uniformity, which is probably very different from the reality if the whole were known.
But if the scope of the present work forbids our dwelling at any length on questions which absorb the interest of Hellenic archaeologists, or on the discoveries of Egyptology and Assyriology, the importance of these studies is not for a moment to be ignored. So much at least is gained from such discoveries, that we are not burdened at the outset with a body of speculative disquisition which the investigations of our contemporaries have proved to be baseless. The background recedes into greater distance, the whole is seen in more just proportions, and while many new possibilities have been suggested, experience warns us against making too rash use of them. One general truth seems to result from the inquiries which have made such rapid progress of late years—namely, that in their primitive forms all the religions of mankind are strangely alike. To express it in the terms of a current philosophy, homogeneity attends the earliest phases; evolution brings differentiation, and this again inevitably precedes the final integration. It is with growth that humanity, whether in nation or individual, assumes its characteristic form. There is much wise suggestiveness in Professor Tiele's distinction between the origin of religion and its earliest phase. The germ of life is less apparent in the first green lobe which the seed puts forth than in the full-grown tree.
There is a widespread fallacy on this subject analogous to that which has sometimes prevailed about the meaning of words. It is a common idea that words are sufficiently explained by their etymology, which is no doubt some help, but such crude analysis has very little to do with the state of diction at an advanced period of any language, and still less with the realities corresponding to it. An extreme stage of the fallacy to which I refer is reached when it is imagined that by tracing the verb ‘to be’ in several languages, an approach may be made towards unravelling the secret of existence. The attempt to interpret by means of etymology has often led to ridiculous mistakes, and the same is true of attempts to explain the nature of religion by bringing some advanced phase of it into immediate connection with real or supposed primitive phenomena, which are illustrated by surviving customs of remote peasantry. Suppose that a stranger, in describing Scottish religion, were to say that our temples open generally to the west, though with less precision than that observed in some other lands; that we have abjured hero worship, but still keep the vigil of the day that was formerly sacred to all the heroes, and that on this occasion certain rites of divination are maintained, such as that of burning hazel nuts on the hearthstone and of dipping a garment in a stream and looking backward, with other strange observances which are described by the poet of the nation; that horse-shoes are hung outside doors as a protection against evil spirits or the evil eye; that offerings are made at sacred wells, to which the sick and infirm are carried for miraculous cures; that in some districts if a pig is met with in the road the person who encounters it must immediately touch cold iron; that on the vigil preceding the first day of the year, a time sacred to a local Bacchus whom the inhabitants call John Barleycorn, a custom has been introduced from over seas of lighting up a pine tree on which offerings are suspended, and round which the children move; (that this remnant of tree worship should have come from abroad is more remarkable, because fir-trees are so common in the land)—would this be an adequate description of Scottish religion? Would it help us to understand that power which arouses and also calms our passions, controls our energies, purifies our homes—the power that has wrought out our liberties and made us a nation? Such phenomena as those I have alluded to are inseparable, it may be, from what may be roughly described as popular religion; they afford material for endless investigation on the part of the students of folklore; but they do not constitute religion in the sense in which the term is here employed. They form rather the leaf-mould out of which it springs, whose quality is indicated by the weeds that grow upon it; but they have little to do either with the deeper roots or the spreading branches. To suppose, for example, that any light can be thrown upon the spirit and meaning of Euripides by connecting the action of the Bacchae with some ritual of which the traces remain, say, amongst the Russian peasantry—though the process may be ingenious, and some such far-off connection may have a real existence—is a mode of commentary which confuses more than it enlightens. For it ignores a whole history of feeling and reflection, of action and reaction, of thought and imagination, that has come between. Such speculations have an absorbing interest, an indubitable value, but they provide no answer to the questions which concern us here—viz. first, What were the religious motives which actuated the Greeks in historical times? and secondly, What did the Greeks or any of them contribute towards the religious inheritance of humanity? Was Hermes a god of winds or of boundaries, or a Phoenician culture-god? Was Apollo originally the sun-god, or, as Usener thinks, only the warder-off of ill (ἀπο-πέλλων)? To us it matters little, so long as we know how the Greeks of historic times conceived of them. Athena and Artemis as well as Aphrodite have been traced by some to the Babylonian Ishtar, while others (countenanced by Plato) would identify Athena with the Egyptian or Libyan goddess Neit. But such speculations have no bearing on what an ordinary Athenian felt or believed. The Christian seasons of Christmas and of Easter have till lately been supposed to have some relation to Pagan festivals of the winter solstice and of the return of spring, and there is no doubt that the orientation of churches is remotely derived from the east. But does it therefore follow that there is a close and vital connection between the religion of Babylon or of Egypt and that of modern Europe? Or because the Feast of Pentecost coincides with the Jewish Feast of Weeks, do Christian worshippers at Whitsuntide remember that it is harvest time in Judaea? A German critic has made the suggestive remark that the complete personification of divine names was only possible when their original meaning had been forgotten.
When the Spartans delayed their coming to meet the Persians on the ground that it was not yet full moon; or when they opposed the Pisistratidae in obedience to the oracle, because as Herodotus expresses it they chose to obey God rather than men; or when they allowed Mardonius to over-run Attica because they were bound to keep the festival of the Hyacinthia, on which they imagined that the safety of Sparta depended; or when at Plataea they refused to move until in answer to the prayer of their king the omens were favourable, they gave evidence of the indubitable reality of one aspect of Greek religion; it was the same clinging to the letter of tradition which led a small minority of the Athenians to trust in the wooden wall on the Acropolis. But the majority of the latter people, who sent their wives and children across to Salamis while they manned their fleet, deserting the family hearths and the public temples alike, and according to Plutarch formally entrusting Athens to the keeping of Athena, evinced a nobler faith and were obedient to a higher law, to which Themistocles gave an expression that still lives on British soil, when he told them that by the wooden wall they must understand their fleet. It is to the consciousness of such higher impulses, and of a divine power directing them—Athena still caring for her people, though her image was destroyed—that the world owes immortal utterances of religious thought which are still working and must ever work for good. The higher mind of Greece was gradually evolved; and although it shone most brightly in dark hours, was never thoroughly recast or moulded anew out of the furnace of a great national affliction, such as the Captivity was to the Hebrews. Hence the Greek cannot be said to have learned the lesson of the blessedness of sorrow, although at moments he came very near to the revelation of a divine being suffering for man. Yet if Greek religion left us nothing so fusile, if I may be allowed the expression, so penetrated with the fire of inspiration and of holy zeal as Hebrew prophecy, our religious inheritance would be the poorer if we had not also the serener light of Hellas, in which the heavenly and earthly are blended in one clear vision. The clouds of mythology which imagination had illuminated still hung about their most aspiring thoughts, and blurred their outlines, and yet without relinquishing the past, the Greeks, or rather an exceptional Greek here and there, saw further into divine truth in some directions than men of any other race have seen. In this process of gradual evolution, especially at certain points in it, different strata of religious culture are found existing side by side: traditional observances, new rites and doctrines and speculative ideas. While the national worship was maintained with extreme care, that which was most essential to it was not the understanding of its origin, but the fact that it was national: the expression of a common feeling of piety towards the state, and to the power that upheld the state. But even the popular or national religion was no longer precisely what it had been; for through the influence of successive priests and legislators, the public ritual had undergone many modifications, although these were in a manner disguised by being represented as revivals of the past. Each victory or defeat brought new gods or heroes into prominence; an earthquake or a famine gave fresh stimulus to certain worships, often at the direction of an oracle. The dynastic importance of particular families gave precedence to the deities whom they worshipped, and the struggle between progressive and conservative instincts within the same people resulted at once in the perpetuation of old customs and in their transformation or the infusion into them of a new spirit.
In this secular process, which cannot be followed into minutiae, some inborn tendencies of the race were sure in the long run to make themselves apparent. Thus the observances of a particular age, while they have the appearance of fixity and of being merely a deposit from the past, are really, so far as they are alive, the expression of present needs, desires, emotions, and, like that which they express, are in a state of transition. This continuous growth may be interrupted by some violent convulsion, but when the trouble is past it ‘will close and be itself again,’ and to the popular consciousness will seem to have been always the same. This appearance of identity is illusory, as I have said; but that which is really the same and yet not the same, because ever developing, is the mind and spirit of a people, which, while cherishing old traditions because they are national, interprets them according to its own stage of thought and culture. Thus we return again to the same point. The origin of a religious rite or ordinance is one thing, its significance for those who observe it is quite another thing.
What in a religious sense are we to understand by the Greek spirit? That is the question to be solved. And before attempting to answer it through an examination of Greek literature, some superficial generalities and rhetorical commonplaces have to be swept aside. 1. Since the renaissance of art, the Greek has been commonly regarded as purely and simply a worshipper of beauty. Mr. C. H. Pearson sums up what most men think, in saying that modern civilisation owes its principles of beauty to the Greeks, of law to the Romans, and of religion to the Hebrews; and Mr. William Watson, at once a refined poet and a critic of uncommon insight, says that the Greek race was ‘simply intoxicated with beauty.’ We shall find that that is after all a partial view, and it is apt to be associated with another impression that is still more misleading. Many persons imagine that the one point in which the Greeks excelled other races was the power of enjoying life; and it is supposed that the way to imitate them is to take everything lightly and not seriously. It needs not to enter at all deeply into Greek culture, to see that there could not well be a more strange perversion. It is simply ludicrous when applied to the fifth century B.C., and can only be accounted for by supposing that some of those flowers which bloomed around the ruins of Hellenic culture in its decay, such as the epigrams of the Anthology, and the songs of the pseudo-Anacreon, have been mistaken for the original substance.
The Greeks made life beautiful, not because they were self-pleasers, but because they believed in gods who cared for human perfection—for perfect bodies, perfect minds, perfect works, and splendid actions. Not unfrequently the religion of the Greeks, so far as they are credited with religion, is supposed to be identical or co-extensive with the significance of the remains of ancient art. But this supposition leads to impressions which are to some extent misleading. As in the Italy of the Renaissance, where the artist often failed to share in the devotion to which he gave expression, so that the beauty of a work is not always commensurate with its pious intention, while the devotion of the worshipper often rested upon associations quite distinct from artistic perfection (Titian is often less religious than Bellini or Cima da Conegliano), so we cannot doubt that the sculptor of an archaic image, whether in wood or stone, may often have been more simply devoted to the god whom, he sought to represent than the great masters who came after him. And when the art of sculpture was at its height, we may well believe that the pious worshipper was often more impressed with the sacredness of some formless wooden idol than with a masterpiece of Pheidias or Ageladas. Religion gave the impulse to art as its handmaid, and the temples which crowned each height, the shrines by the wayside with the altars before them, and the low-reliefs representing mythical scenes, were the monuments of collective or national religious feeling, to which they gave continual nourishment, and which they informed with nobler thoughts and wider conceptions. But the handmaid could not command the mistress, and the sacredness which attached to some square pillar with the head of Hermes by the roadside had not much to do with the beauty of the workmanship. Greek art was rooted in religion, but the unsurpassable height which it attained was due to the independent working of the Greek spirit, freely idealising the human form in association with the conception of the divine. Meanwhile the religion to which it owed its life and to which it ministered had other workings, of which, as Oedipus says of his own destiny, mere beauty were an inadequate exponent.
1. Since the revival of letters the Greeks have been regarded by many thinkers as the type of pure reason: not Pheidias now, or Polycleitus, but Aristotle, is the prominent figure, ‘the master of those that know.’ But in studying the religious life of Hellas, as shown in the literature from the seventh to the fourth century, we shall find much that is discordant with such a view, and side by side with clear thinking we shall become aware of vague mystical yearnings and unreasoning emotions. In this connection it is to be remembered that Greek literature, as we have it, is but a fragmentary reflex of Greek thought and feeling.
2. Another literary commonplace is that which speaks of the serenity (Heiterkeit) of the Greek. In this again more account is taken of the form than of the spirit of Hellenic culture. The conception of Serenity gives but a poor account of Aeschylus or of Demosthenes, though it has a true application to Pindar; and in him, too, there is often an under-current of sadness beneath the persistent euphemism.
3. Once more, the Greek ideal is thought to be summed up in the word ‘moderation’—the Delphic μηδὲν ἄγαν, the Aristotelian μεσότης. Moderation is a great word, and enters largely into all that is best in the Greek philosophic temper. But it is not to be forgotten that it is moderation supervening upon intensity, that ‘beneath the marble exterior there is a soul thrilling with spiritual emotion.’
The history of religion cannot be separated altogether from secular history—least of all in Hellas. Religious impulses have in all ages and countries been apt to become the instruments of policy, and in the case of no people is this more obvious than amongst the Greeks. It is a nice question how far this subordination “was conscious or unconscious, and how far in either case it may have been consistent with the sincere acceptance of the religion. The great importance that was attached to Delos in the fifth century was intensified by the necessity of having a centre for the confederacy within reach of Athens, provided with a religious sanction; and when the Athenians added emphasis to this by cleansing the island, and removing the bones of those who had been buried there, they were guided by a strange combination of sagacious policy with superstitious feeling. When Themistocles restrained the Athenians from the pursuit of Xerxes by saying, ‘this deliverance is the work of the gods, whose jealousy would not suffer the pride of an impious man. Let us not provoke them by following our advantage too far, but let us rebuild our ruined temples, and restore our homesteads and our family hearths,’—he availed himself of religious sentiments which were alive in every Athenian breast. But how far did he share them himself while making use of them:—especially if, as Herodotus calmly says, ‘he was providing a refuge for himself, in case his countrymen should turn against him, by establishing a claim on the gratitude of Xerxes’? The most obvious answer is that he was not sincere. Yet it may not be the true answer; and it is only fair to remember that in their earlier forms religion and public life were the same thing.
This case affords an illustration of the mixed condition of human affairs, in which the ideal is blended with the actual so inextricably as to appear unreal. Yet its reality remains when all attendant circumstances have vanished. Human imperfections cannot permanently cloud the aspiration after the divine, and even the shadow of a divine authority may long outlive the faults of its ministers, as in fact the influence of the Delphic oracle survived, in spite of acknowledged mystifications and deceptions, and even the well-supported imputation of bribery. The example of Themistocles may further remind us that in speaking of Athenian religion in the present volume we shall have less to do with the religious attitude of the many than of the few. For it is this last which gives its main importance to the subject, and while it is interesting to know what the average Athenian felt about Ajax or Theseus or Athena, this interest is largely due to the gratitude we owe to those select spirits who soared above the level of their age and have left to succeeding times deep thoughts and great imaginations couched in perfect words, which belong eternally to what is highest in man, and are constituent rays of that harmonious truth which is ‘the light of all our seeing.’ The Greeks partook of many faults which were prevalent in the ancient world: it is often said, for example, that they were sensual; so were the Hebrews, as their own prophets bear witness; so were other Asiatics in a superlative degree. But there were men amongst the Greeks, and not one or two only, who learned to govern their own lives for the good of others, to strain after perfection, and to realise in human nature a noble conception of the divine, ‘filling up,’ as Aristophanes puts it, ‘the image of virtue.’ It is with these that we concern ourselves, not with the common herd. But it may be truly said of the Greeks as a people, that the sheer activity of mind continually tended to raise and purify those elements of human nature which in less gifted races are left to grovel in the mire. Even their best men long looked indulgently on some things which we have learned to execrate, but about these also their greatest clearly saw the truth at last; and it had been anticipated in the divine silences of Homer.
A distinction to be continually borne in mind is that between religious feeling and mythology: the attitude of the worshipper is often different from that of the hymn-writer or the religious poet. The one is prepossessed and absorbed in the act of worship, the other has a free and unembarrassed mind. The worshipper looks up in all simplicity to the power that is able to help or save, and is anxious to omit no jot of the required ceremonial, as he is instructed in it by the exegetes or the priest. If he is a learned man some part of the legend of his god may occur to his imagination, but he will dwell upon it only for immediate edification and with a reverence which precludes wild thoughts or strange inventions. The mythologist, on the other hand, is nothing if not inventive; his rôle is to entertain and please. He too is guided by religious feeling: he is eager to engage the minds of his hearers with thoughts about the great being of whom his own imagination is full; and there are limits conventional and spiritual which he may not pass; but in the hour of festival the gods too are imagined as being in a festive mood, and as not disdaining to have told concerning them what in the licence of their divinity they have not been ashamed to do. Thus the religious feelings of men in their moments of distress and difficulty are not to be gauged by the representations of divine action to which in times of ease and festivity it was their delight to listen.
The belief of man in powers that are ready and willing to help him, especially in times of anxiety or suffering, and still more his belief in spiritual enemies, is always liable to be confused with traditional or arbitrary notions imposed upon him from without, to which, in his ignorance and immaturity of thought, he lends too willing an ear. The wonder is, not that so much of blind faith in groundless imaginations should have entered into Greek religion, but that Greeks without ceasing to be religious should have worn so lightly the burden which descended from an immemorial past. Vague spiritual presences, uncertain whether friendly or hostile, had haunted human spirits before the family or even the state was a reality, that is before the existence of religion in any true sense at all. Such influences were only too ready to revive, especially in weaker minds. There was, moreover, the bondage to impressions, words, observances, which had a living reality for some past generation of mankind, but continued to exercise their ascendency over a generation that had lost the clue to them and had outgrown the stage of incipient thought and reasoning in which they originated. Here the fertility of invention native to the Greeks was of great service to them. We sometimes speak of the religion that is learned at a mother's knee, and Plato in like manner argues that the existence of the gods cannot be doubtful to those who have seen their parents sacrificing and offering libations. The same motive of filial piety gave strength to rites and ideas handed down from primitive ages, accepted without question, and transmitted with less and less of understanding. As thought from time to time awakened, or emotion roused imagination, new meanings were read into the old forms, and in these new meanings the spirit of the age revealed itself. Things which it was impious to question, it became a moral necessity partially to explain.
The following were some of the chief modes in which superstition entered into Greek religion:
1. The notion of divine anger became ultimately the occasion of much that was most valuable in Greek thought. But the crude form of it, which saw in each disaster an outcome of divine revenge, or of the envy of the gods at human prosperity, clung persistently to the popular religion, and effectually overclouded such glimpses as reflection had opened of the nature of God. Even in historical times occasions arose in which the panic or despair of a people could only be appeased by rites of hideous cruelty, which were supposed necessary to pacify the wrath (μήνιμα) of an angry god. (Such recrudescence of disused religious forms in times of stress is found in all religions—see Jeremiah xliv. 15–19.) The ministers of religion in counselling such rites are not to be accused of heartless hypocrisy. They acted under an impulse in which they sincerely shared, or at worst followed the dictates of tradition, in the hope of satisfying the craving for religious peace which seemed otherwise unattainable for their countrymen. Thus the human mind, by its natural working, contributed to its own enslavement. It is hard to say how long the custom of human sacrifice was continued in Arcadia, but it would seem to have still existed in the time of Plato, and there is little reason to doubt that Themistocles, however unwillingly, yielded to the clamour of the Athenian populace for the slaughter of Persian prisoners in honour of Hellenic gods, an act only less barbarous or less inconsistent with general Greek usage than that of the Persians of the same period, in burying their prisoners alive.
Yet Greek religion in the time of Plato and even of Themistocles was a deep reality, and in the higher minds was already penetrated with moral enlightenment.
2. So far men's thoughts were guided by the natural conviction that the ‘curse causeless cannot come.’ But the belief in gods suggested not only fear but hope: the hope, namely, of communication between man and God. The powers which closely surrounded human life could not be imagined as altogether silent. Hence the constantly recurring belief in omens and signs, a belief that prevailed especially among women. What is here most noticeable is the persistence of the belief, side by side with an ever-returning scepticism. The scepticism is almost as old as the belief. Penelope is evermore seeking to diviners, but Telemachus is tired of listening to them. The wise Noemon interprets aright the augury of the eagles, in accordance with the secret wish of his heart, while the bold Eurymachus scouts every omen that thwarts his purpose. In this he may be thought to speak out of the naughtiness of his mind, but his disbelief is shared by the patriotism of Hector, who declares that the best augury is to defend one's country.
The diviner is, notwithstanding, a constant figure in Greek life; and his influence, though often suspected of corruption, was none the less important. This general tendency found its main support in the great oracular seats, of which Dodona in the earliest times, and Delphi throughout Greek history, stood out pre-eminent among a host of less important centres. The divining well mentioned by Pausanias, into which you dropped a mirror and took it out and read your fortune, is only a particular instance of a widely spread phenomenon. “What led originally to the singular importance attaching to Dodona and Delphi on the mainland, or to Branchidae in Ionia, is a point of great obscurity, in which mere accident may have had a large share. The only thing to be here insisted upon is the fact that the human desire for divine communication in the crises of private or public life maintained the ascendency of those institutions which had the sanction of primeval reverence, and of association with the immediate presence of a god.
The period of Hellenic culture which I propose to consider has five chief culminating points.
1. The prehistoric age, vaguely described as Mycenaean, of which we know very little, but of which scattered hints have lately been gathered by archaeological investigation. It was, in fact, the bloom of an advanced civilisation which had a very real existence, whether to be called Achaean, Danaan, or Pelasgian. It is necessary to refer to this period, but I shall only touch upon it in so far as it appears to me to throw some light on subsequent developments which are manifested in literature.
2. The Homeric age, apparently the product of this Achaean culture transferred to the coasts of Asia Minor, and there again developed in new forms.
3. The growth of the great cities, and the first rise of philosophy in the sixth century before Christ. Side by side with this we shall have to study the main features of the post-Homeric religion, preceding the specially Attic period.
4. The period following the Persian war. In this, while the Attic genius takes the lead, we have also to include the reflection of a wider Hellenism in the histories of Herodotus.
5. The development of philosophy, chiefly on Athenian soil.
But the division of our subject cannot be made to turn thus simply upon considerations of time. “We have to consider also, especially in the earlier period, distinctions first of race, and secondly of locality. Throughout Hellenic culture, there is a general community of type underlying all distinctions. But every city, whether small or great, had its own peculiarities (Herodotus tells us that there were four pronounced differences of dialect amongst the Ionians of Asia Minor), and above all, there was a marked diversity between Dorian, or at least Spartan, institutions and those of the rest of Greece. Nor was it a matter of indifference whether the Dorian city was planted at Sparta or in Rhodes or Crete, at Syracuse, or mingled with Achaean and perhaps barbarian blood at Tarentum or in Cyrene.
These separatist tendencies proved stronger in the end than the nobler impulse to pan-Hellenism. But it is not to be forgotten, that while this last was rooted in an essential community of race, it was also encouraged and supported by great religious institutions. Amongst these the Delphic oracle and the Olympian games were the most prominent.
It is a common observation that religion and morality sometimes move on separate lines, and that in their gradual approximation consists the elevation of humanity. In one sense, of course, religion is ethical always, and never more so than in primitive times, for it is a rule of life which enters into the minutest details of conduct; but when not enlightened by reason, it is a blind guide, often leading to the most monstrous perversions. The awakening of reason and of true moral feeling has often taken the form of irreligion; but there is a weakness inherent in such a negative attitude, which prompts a counter movement towards the purifying of religion from within. In each successive stage of the long history, the measure of advance is registered through the free action of individual minds; and it is because the best minds in Greece could always freely act, that the expression of their inmost thoughts has an imperishable interest for mankind. The form which that expression took was relative to the conditions of popular belief and custom; this detracts nothing, however, from its charm and freshness, but rather enhances the touch of nature which proves the kinship of the great minds of Greece to the wise and good of other lands and times.