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Chapter 12: Attic Religion in the Earlier Fifth Century

The Dionysiac Worship — Origin and Growth of Tragedy.

IN that early state of Hellas of which we can only entertain conjecture, there must have been many gods with comparatively few attributes. The gods many and lords, many, belonging severally to each locality or to each tribe, would have had for an enlightened observer, had such been there, a strong family resemblance, differing only as the small communities of the same race, at the same stage of culture, may be imagined to have differed. If, as some have thought, the Greeks gave to many local gods the common name of Zeus, this was only an appellative, denoting the fact that each so-named god was supreme over that particular land; much as the various tribes of Canaan had each their Baal, whom they worshipped under special titles, all much in the same way. When from various causes, amongst which Homer, the Delphic oracle, and the Olympian games were not the least, the Greek tribes had been partly drawn together under one universal name, a select number of divinities under the headship of Zeus were organised, again only in part, into a generally accepted Pantheon. Many deities, once reverenced at particular shrines, were eclipsed by the more modern sanctities, while others were retained as satellites of the chief divinity, or figured as local heroes, worshipped at their tombs:—as if in a firmament sown with innumerable stars of the seventh magnitude great constellations of the first and second magnitudes were to shine forth, either dimming or eclipsing their elder rivals. Polytheism does not stop here. Attributes of the great gods are again personified, and at each centre of worship there is a cluster of divinities, grouped together in some order. Each of the more brilliant stars in the newly adorned firmament gets a planetary system round it, and each planet has its accompanying moons. In some places, at Argos for instance, the custom had obtained of combining several of the great divinities round one high altar (κοινοβωμία), probably in groups of eight or twelve, as in Egypt and Babylon.1

Now under cover of this long-continued process there has been a growth of thought. The greater gods have had their characters modified by the changing circumstances and experience of the communities who support their worship; by the imagination of great poets educating the race; and, in the later stage of which we now speak, also by the influence of the priesthood. The ‘Olympians’ are frequently addressed under this common title. And amongst the subordinate deities who now claim the reverence of mankind are some which in modern language would be called abstractions, but to the personifying imagination of the early fifth century were beings as full of life and power as the deities of the older tradition. Such, for instance, was the goddess Nemesis, whose temple at Rhamnus, on the Marathonian shore, was adorned by her statue attributed to Pheidias, commemorating the defeat of Xerxes as the most signal of all examples of the fall of pride. Such was Peace, whom the Athenian with all his quarrelsomeness loved as the protector of his fields, his olive and his vine and fig-tree, that Peace (Είρήνη) whom the sculptors were wont to represent with the infant Wealth in her arms. Such was Fortune, who was often imaged forth in the same way; and such was Adrasteia, the goddess of the inevitable, whose worship the daughters of Oceanus commend to Prometheus. So far the growth of ritual and mythology in this direction was natural and spontaneous. Then came the Orphic teacher with his pantheistic blending of divinities, and his vague suggestions of great thoughts on the divine nature, which he was unable clearly to express, and the Eleusinian mystagogue, not uninfluenced by Orphism, but also having spiritual aspirations of his own.

Such in general outline was the condition of Athenian religion when Aeschylus, who had fought at Marathon and been present at Salamis, entered on his vocation as a votary of the Dionysiac worship, and the new creator of Tragedy.

Before going further it is necessary to speak more fully of Dionysus, of whom in the preceding chapter comparatively little has been said. His worship like that of Demeter was in historical times an extremely complex phenomenon. I will not attempt to determine here exactly the sources of the stream that gained such fulness on Athenian soil. Some aboriginal strain had been developed through Phoenician, Thracian, and possibly Egyptian influences. As it existed within the bounds of Attica this religion again resembled that of Demeter in retaining a more primitive celebration side by side with that which ultimately proved most important. The spring festival of the Lenaea was more ancient and remained more simple than the greater Dionysia, originally a winter festival, which took place earlier in the year. Instead of giving a detailed account of either of these, which have been described in many popular works, it must suffice to speak generally of the spirit which informed the worship and the probable motive of its adoption as part of the state religion. The Dionysus whom the tragedians celebrate is the god of Thebes, the son of Semele, the nursling of the Nysaean nymphs, whose worship had been adopted not without a struggle at Thebes and previously in Thrace. The legends of Pentheus and of Lycurgus are extremely significant in this regard.

This Dionysus is not only the god of wine, but also primarily the embodiment of all great powers of vegetable and animal nature, and his festival is one in which the feelings awakened in primitive humanity by the succession of the seasons, the joy of vintage, the gloom of winter, the rejuvenescence of the spring-time, had found a natural expression. In a dithyramb composed by Pindar for performance at Athens, of which a fragment has been preserved, the chorus, after invoking the Olympian gods, Zens above all, pass on to celebrate Bacchus and his mother Semele whose power is seen in the opening of the year, ‘when the chamber of the Hours is disclosed and sweet flowers spread their fragrance, when the prophet of Zeus at Nemea perceives the first shoot of the palm-tree, when rosy chaplets are worn, and songs resound to the accompaniment of the flute.’

As the tribe came before the family, and the village before the city, so the annual festival either of the tribe or of the village preceded that organisation of the state and of national religion which in Hellas found a general rallying point at Delphi. The Delphic legend of the conquest of Dionysus by Apollo was a symbolic embodiment of this truth. But the tribe or the village community which had submitted to the restraints of civic life was liable to a periodic recrudescence of the old Pagan impulse. We may imagine them as seized with an epidemic of orgiastic frenzy, returning to some wild rite of their ancestors, going forth into the pinewoods, tearing in pieces the victim who was identified with the tribal god, partaking of his blood, and giving vent to the exuberance of their animal nature, not unaccompanied by a diviner stimulus, with shouts and cries. Such an outburst would threaten a manifest disturbance of the more settled organisation. Now the wise tolerance of some Greek ruler, at once priest and king, is to be imagined as obviating this danger to the order of the state by the institution of an annual festival associated with the joy of vintage time, or of broaching last year's wine cask, in which these aboriginal feelings might find utterance with a minimum of mischief. The story of Melampus is instructive from this point of view. The women of Argolis (including the daughters of Proetus) had all at once gone mad, and Melampus, a sort of medicine man, cured them by the introduction of Bacchic rites (which the historian thinks that he had learnt in Egypt) and so obtained a third share of the kingly power. Thus in its first institution the Bacchic festival was a means of healing or purgation, at once indulging and regulating emotions that could not be suppressed; so rendering them harmless and preventing the turbulence that might arise from continual restraint. Now in such a festival, especially amongst the Dorians, the regularly ordered dance accompanied with singing was a prominent feature; and the poetical genius of the people, or of a succession of poets, developed this into complex and beautiful forms. And at Athens, where things beautiful were not rejected because they were of foreign growth, the Dorian tragic chorus became an adjunct of the Dionysiac celebration.

In the course of centuries Athenian life and culture had passed through many phases, in which primitive rites were not abandoned, but expanded and modified, The recitation of epic poetry, which in the time of Pisistratus or earlier had come over from the Asiatic seaboard, now formed an accompaniment of the great national festival of Athena. In this body of recited verse many legends of the heroic age of Greece, to which every Greek looked back with pride, had found a splendid record. Why should not the festival of Dionysus also be adorned with some of these time-honoured tales? The leader of the chorus had long since in the intervals of song and dance recited in vernacular Ionic Greek some appropriate narrative with gestures approaching to impersonation. The legend of Theseus or of Herakles, by an agreeable licence, now sometimes took the place of the myth of Dionysus; and other deities, as in Pindar's dithyramb, were invoked to favour the celebration which had found acceptance with the state. The old Bacchic impulse thus dressed itself in novel forms. When by a further change, in addition to the chorus leader, a second speaker or answerer was introduced, a more finished impersonation was at once made possible: tragic dialogue began, and the drama in the proper sense was born. The spirit of these changes is well expressed by Nietsche, in his essay on the birth of tragedy, when he says that through the influence of music the more artistic Apolline element was grafted on the Dionysiac wildness. What had once been a mere village festival had now become a public institution, and this process was consummated just at the time when Athenian national life was rising to its height. The grosser elements were reserved for the satyric drama as a separate mode, but the Bacchic enthusiasm was not therefore withdrawn from the more serious performance which now took definite shape. The orgiastic impulse was refined and clarified, but not extinguished. The fire still glowed, although the decoration of the altar was different and the tone of the worshippers more solemn.

Aeschylus is distinctly said by Aristophanes to have owed his inspiration to Demeter and her mysteries. But his genius is too great to have ever taken the mould of any priest-made form. If, as Aristotle tells us, he was accused of having divulged in his dramas some part of the Eleusinian secret, this may probably count as one of the groundless accusations of plagiarism to which great poets have always been liable.

Familiar with every aspect of Greek religion, he had meditated profoundly on the great questions which it raised, concerning life and death, good and evil, crime and retribution, the state of the departed, the relation of man to higher powers, and that of the new world in which he found himself, and in which he exulted, to an earlier and less harmonious dispensation which he imagined as having preceded it and given it birth. He is in entire sympathy with polytheism while he is representing the thoughts of ordinary men and women; yet he feels also for the patriot, who despises those who cry to heaven when they should be acting for the common good, and allows Eteocles to remind the frightened maidens, with something of ironical scorn, that the gods are said to desert a falling city.

But throughout his tragedies, wearing as they do the many-coloured garb of popular religion, there is a dominant tone,—a strain of higher mood. Religion means for him something more than sacrifice or ceremonious prayers. The dark traditions of the past, which it is his cue to dramatise, are transfigured with a light from heaven, calculated to lead mankind into a more excellent way. The deliverance of Hellas through the agency of Athens has penetrated her poet with the conviction that in the higher mind of the Athenian people while they remained faithful to it, or in other words while they followed the guidance of Athena and Apollo, lies the salvation of the world.

This conviction meets in his mind with far-reaching contemplations concerning the nature and attributes of the divine, the first principles of human conduct, and the sources of good and evil. In all he recognises growth from discord towards harmony, from Chaos to Cosmos, from tyranny and rebellion, action and reaction, to the triumphs of liberty and order.

In himself, also, there is a growth observable,

1. In his early plays, as compared with the ‘Agamemnon’ and the ‘Prometheus,’ his religious as well as his artistic attitude is comparatively crude. Nothing can better illustrate the workings of a great religious genius still struggling with the swathings of mythology than to compare the passages in the ‘Suppliants,’ in which Zeus is spoken of as the lover of Io when transformed into a heifer, and those other lines not far remote from these, in which the power of Zeus as the supreme god is expressed in language almost worthy of the book of Job:—

Divine Protector, now beyond the sea,

Son of the Highest, the wandering heifer's child,—

For while she roamed and cropped the flowery lea,

Zeus breathed on her, and, ever undefiled,

She felt the touch that filled her veins with thee,

And made her to be mother of us all;

Epaphus, named of Fate, on thee we call!

Let highest in mind be most in might.

The choice of Zeus what charm may bind?

His thought, mid Fate's mysterious night

A growing blaze against the wind,

Prevails:—whate'er the nations say,

His purpose holds its darkling way.

What thing his nod hath ratified

Stands fast, and moves with firm sure tread,

Nor sways, nor swerves, nor starts aside:

A mazy thicket, hard to thread,

A labyrinth undiscovered still,

The far-drawn windings of his will.

Down from proud towers of hope

He throws infatuate men,

Nor needs, to reach his boundless scope,

The undistressful pain

Of Godlike effort; on his holy seat

He thinks, and all is done, even as him seems most meet.

Yet even this last expression appears vague and incomplete when compared with the conception of Zeus—or should we rather say of God Himself?—in the first chorus of the ‘Agamemnon’

Zeus,—by what name soe'er

He glories being addressed,

Even by that holiest name

I name the Highest and Best.

On him I cast my troublous care,

My only refuge from despair:

Weighing all else, in Him alone I find

Relief from this vain burden of the mind.

One erst appeared supreme,

Bold with abounding might,

But like a darkling dream

Vanished in long past night

Powerless to save; and he is gone

Who flourished since, in turn to own

His conqueror, to whom with soul on fire

Man crying aloud shall gain his heart's desire,—

Zeus, who prepared for men

The path of wisdom, binding fast

Learning to suffering. In their sleep

The mind is visited again

With memory of affliction past.

Without the will, reflection deep

Reads lessons that perforce shall last,

Thanks to the power that plies the sovran oar,

Resistless, toward the eternal shore.

And not less wonderful is the teaching of the Promethean trilogy, in which it is shown that even the supreme God, if exercising power apart from wisdom and beneficence, would be less than divine.

2. In dealing with the principles of human conduct there is a corresponding advance. The virtues of mercy to the suppliant, and of self-devoted bravery in defence of one's fatherland, were not unknown to those of old time. Yet in the ‘Suppliants’ and the ‘Seven against Thebes’ the poet has so enforced these duties as to invest them with a nobler sanction. The hesitation of king Pelasgus, whether or not to protect the fifty maidens who appealed to him for succour, at the risk of ruin to the state, is borne down by the unanimous voice of the people, who declare for the higher law. Here already Aeschylus shows that confidence in the people under rational guidance, as the supporters of all things good, which has its greatest expression in the description of the fight at Salamis. Observe also his manly tenderness towards women, of which the description of captivity in the chorus of the ‘Seven against Thebes’ is a signal example. But his thought has not yet the comprehensiveness which it attains in the Orestean trilogy. His moral and political conceptions have not risen to their full height.

3. The figure of Eteocles, who goes forth to battle for his country, well knowing his impending doom, and of Amphiaraus, the righteous man enlisted in a wrongful cause, will never cease to fire the human breast with a sympathetic glow. But there are yet deeper tones in the ‘Eumenides,’ where the love of country is transfused with a love of goodness and of equity, of gentleness and purity of life.

4. In his ‘Persians’ Aeschylus appeals not merely to Athenian pride but to the frank and generous spirit of his countrymen, which could sympathise with the vanquished, and reflect upon the causes of success. ‘Not unto us, but to thy name, O Athena, be the praise.’ It is the paean of rational freedom. Here also appears the Aeschylean aspect of Nemesis, a conception which in the ages following Homer had obtained a powerful hold on the Hellenic mind. It will be remembered that Herodotus was in sympathy with that forward current of Hellenic feeling, of which Athenian life, after the Persian wars, was the main channel. But his notion of the divine nature was still overclouded with early pessimism. In recommending that law of moderation, which was the chief note of incipient reflection in Hellas, he based his argument on the supposed malignity of the gods. The Solon of Herodotus, most unlike the real Solon, speaks of God as the author of confusion and as full of envy. The envy of the gods was, in fact, the crude form under which the moralists of Ionia seem to have couched the all-important lesson of wise self-control. The impetuosity of passion and desire thus found a check. This traditional doctrine had, of course, a prominent place amongst the motives of tragedy, but Aeschylus takes occasion to correct such perverted theology, and to teach a higher morality at the same time. It is not the successful, the eminent, or the wealthy, whom the gods cast down, but the proud, the impious, and the unjust. Human calamities are not accounted for by divine jealousy, nor even by a blind inexorable fate, but by the misdirection of the human will. Xerxes is over-thrown, not because it had been prophesied that disaster should attend the Persian arms, but because he did violence to the sacred Hellespont, destroyed the temples of Hellenic gods, and trusted in his own might. The Greeks are delivered, not only because heaven favoured them, but because freedom had inspired them with the love of country. Thus, not all at once with perfect clearness, but with irresistible fervour, the religious spirit is moralised. Man is represented as in part the master of his own fate, and the fear of the gods becomes a rational motive. No breath of doubt is thrown upon religious customs or traditions, but they are transfigured into the expression of thoughts transcending them.

God is no longer merely envious of prosperity, but rather jealous of the right, determining that all shall have their due; and for this not Phthonos, envy, but Nemesis, the spirit of distribution, is the more correct expression. The religious spirit of this age anticipates what a century afterwards Plato well summed up in the fourth and fifth books of the ‘Laws,’ in following up his retrospect of the course of Hellenic history. Although it is coloured with a somewhat later strain of reflection, the passage may be quoted here:—(‘Legg.’ iv. 716 c—718 B) ‘God ought to be to us the measure of all things, and not man…and he who would be dear to God must as far as possible be like Him and such as He is. Wherefore the temperate man is the friend of God, for he is like Him, and the intemperate man is unlike Him, and different from Him, and unjust. And the same applies to other things; and this is the conclusion, which is also the noblest and truest of all sayings—that for the good man to offer sacrifice to the gods, and hold converse with them by means of prayers and offerings and every kind of service, is the noblest and best of all things, and also the most conducive to a happy life, and very fit and meet. But with the bad man the opposite of all this is true:…from one who is polluted neither a good man nor God can without impropriety receive gifts…Next to the gods, a wise man will do service to the demons or spirits, and then to the heroes, and after them will follow the private and ancestral gods who are worshipped as the law prescribes in the places which are sacred to them. Next comes the honour of living parents, to whom, as is meet, we have to pay the greatest and oldest of all debts, considering that all which a man has belongs to those who gave him birth, and brought him up, and that he must do all that he can to minister to them, first in his property, secondly in his person, and thirdly in his soul, in return for the endless care and travail which they bestowed upon him of old, in the days of his infancy, and which he is now to pay back to them when they are old and in the extremity of their need. And all his life long he ought never to utter or to have uttered an unbecoming word to them; for of light and fleeting words the penalty is most severe; Nemesis the messenger of justice is appointed to watch over all such matters…And let a man not forget to pay the yearly tribute of respect to the dead, honouring them chiefly by omitting nothing that conduces to a perpetual remembrance of them…Living after this manner we shall receive our reward from the gods and those who are above us; and we shall spend our days for the most part in good hope.’

5. In speaking of Hesiod and of Solon, I had occasion to remark that justice or righteousness, as a personified abstraction, was revered by tile Greek poet and legislator, with something of the zeal of Hebrew prophecy. But for the first clear conception of the divine righteousness, we must turn to Aeschylus. The law of retribution was inherent in the very subject of tragedy, but in his treatment of the Orestean legend the thought of the poet pierces beneath the superficial view of human suffering, ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,’ and while he is profoundly aware that the consequences of human conduct spread far beyond any single life, his sense of individual responsibility is clear and strong, and divine justice, in his view of it, is tempered with equity. The weary course of action and reaction, and of wild justice in the shape of personal revenge, is ended by the application of the higher law which changes the Erinnyes into the Eumenides, the Furies into gentle powers, the curse into a blessing.

6. Lastly, in the Promethean trilogy the daring genius of the poet imagines a corresponding progress in the superhuman sphere. Time was when power and wisdom were at war, but now they have been reconciled, and the reign of Zeus is one of unchanging beneficence, since power works together with wisdom, uniting liberty with order. Power and truth have met together, sovereignty and peace have kissed each other.

Aeschylus is credited with certain innovations in mythology. Herodotus tells us that in some play that is lost to us he represented Artemis as the child of Demeter;2 and that he was led to this through having identified Artemis with the Egyptian Isis. However this may be, it is a striking fact that in his ‘Prometheus Bound’ the mother of Prometheus is named indifferently Themis and Earth,—‘One nature, having many names,’—while at the opening of the ‘Eumenides’ Themis is the daughter of Earth; and that at an earlier time, in the ‘Supplices,’ he speaks of the god of the world below as another Zeus, who keeps a strict account of the wrong that is done upon this earth.

Such blending of divinities, whether original or borrowed, has an evident affinity with the Orphic movement. And in characterising the Eumenides as the guardians of public and domestic order, the poet combines in a new way the blessings of peace, fertility, and plenty with the law of retribution of which the Erinnys was the traditional expression. The evil of faction and of civil strife, which no man ever felt more profoundly, is regarded by him as a curse resulting from hereditary crime. The Marathonian warrior had also a deep sense of the horrors of war, for which he found the surest remedy in civic justice and equity. The old blood-feud has been transformed into a pervading consciousness of the widespread pollution derived from acts of violence. Ceremonial purgation with the blood of swine (obviously associated with the religion of Demeter) is not held sufficient, without the intervention of Apollo, testifying to the integrity of a good conscience and a pure intention. The wilful wrongdoer is not freed by death. If not overtaken by divine judgment in his lifetime, he awaits it with trembling in his passage to the other world, and it will find him even in the darkness below the ground. His children and his children's children bear the consequences of his act, but he himself shall reap the main penalty.

Such are a few of the conceptions which reading between the lines we may attribute to the poet himself. Other notions, of which he makes dramatic use, survivals from the past, had evidently still a hold upon the popular imagination. Darius rising from his tomb is worshipped by the Persian elders, whose reverence makes them dumb in the midst of sorrow. He has tasted of the libation which Atossa brought to him, not as in the eleventh Odyssey the blood of a black sheep, but the bloodless offering of honey, wine and milk; bloodless also are the ingredients of the libation poured out by Electra at her father's tomb, over which his children utter their constraining cries for help against his foes. He does not appear visibly to them, but by this religious service tho spirit of Orestes is bent up to the terrible deed. Orestes himself, in promising to the Athenians a firm alliance with Argos, threatens the Argives that, if they fail in supporting Athens, he will send them afflictions from his tomb. The curse of Oedipus survives him, and with dry hard gaze impels Eteocles to the fatal conflict with his brother. Such passages show clearly the effect of hero-worship as a living force. I have spoken above of the crude simplicity of the mythological fancy so tenderly portrayed in the ‘Supplices’ Not less crude is the notion of sacrifice implied in the warning of Orestes to Zeus, that if he suffers the race of Atreus to perish, he will lose the rich savour of many a victim which that royal house will offer to him; and to Agamemnon that if he fails to help his children he will remain portionless among the dead. In mutilating the body of her murdered lord, Clytemnestra betrays a survival of that fear of ghosts which had so largely disappeared from Greek religion. In attempting to gather the purport of Aeschylean theology, we are confronted with the anomalous position of a sublimely gifted mind expressing itself through forms in which the popular imagination was steeped, and by which it was itself affected, yet darkly conveying truths of universal and even eternal significance.

On the other hand it is important to observe that in Aeschylean tragedy the dead even when deified are never spoken of as blessed. There is no reference to Elysium or to the islands of the blest. Agamemnon though a king among the dead still appears unconscious or even non-existent as in Homer. The blessedness to which the poet looks forward is to be realised by present and future generations upon the earth.

Where Aeschylus seems most original he may be quoting from lost writings or from oral tradition, as when the chorus in the ‘Supplices’ say that honour to forefathers comes third amongst the laws of the supreme, or when the Pythian prophetess describes the successive holders of the oracular seat, from Earth, the first prophetess (of whom the Omphalos was perhaps a primitive symbol), through Themis and Phoebe (a name rarely heard) to Apollo, Dionysus not being left out. The counsel of the ghost of Darius to his elders to be cheerful under sorrow, because wealth does no good in the grave, has with much plausibility been thought to indicate an acquaintance with Persian learning.

No such sudden advance in religious thought as appears in Aeschylus is to be found in either of his successors. He set the tone of tragedy. But the originality of Sophocles, not merely as a poet but as a religious thinker, is notwithstanding great. His attitude towards the divine is individual and distinct. Aeschylus dwelt on the imagined contrast between the order of the present and the confusions of the past. Painting the struggle between good and evil with unique vividness, he had a sublime faith in the ultimate triumph of the good. The path of justice is with him a process from savagery to humanity, from discord to law and order, from war to peace, in which the human will bears an essential part, by conforming itself to the divine. In his later years, when he saw the emergence of a spirit in the Athenian people at once more rash and more exclusive than that embodied in the policy of Aristides, he turned to yet wider contemplations, and found comfort in the speculative realisation of the divine attributes in their ultimate harmony. Sophocles, with less of sanguine expectation either for the immediate or the distant future, rather dwells on the unchangeableness of the divine order, and the futility of human efforts to contravene it. The immemorial unwritten laws of piety are stronger than human edicts, and will outlive them. ‘Not now or yesterday they have their being, But everlastingly; and none can tell The hour that saw their birth’ (‘Ant.’). The lives of individuals are in the grasp not of a blind fate, but of an inexorable and mysterious will, that works according to eternal law. Amongst the extant plays of Sophocles also there is perceptible an advance beyond his earlier conceptions, chiefly as regards the law of retribution. Every act brings inevitable consequences, but in the divine judgment it is not the act but the motive of the act that ultimately weighs. Oedipus is ruined in this world, but having suffered here for his unconscious crimes, he is accepted of the gods, and after his death becomes a spiritual power. There is even an approach to the doctrine which the Hebrews learned in their captivity, of the blessedness of sorrow. God seeth not as man seeth. Philoctetes is rejected by the army, who condemn him to untold sufferings, until it is revealed by Herakles that the despised solitary of Lemnos is their destined saviour. In the ‘Ajax,’ however, which is perhaps the earliest of the extant plays, there is an anticipation of the general conception which underlies the action of the two latest, the ‘Oedipus Coloneus’ and the ‘Philoctetes.’ In all three there is a similar contrast between appearance and reality, between the human and the divine point of view. The essentially noble spirit may be harshly used by men in consequence of some error, and for a time may be afflicted by the gods, but ultimately obtains redemption. And it is especially significant that the vindication of Ajax is assigned not to the ruling powers but to Teucer, the bastard son of Telamon, and Tecmessa, the captive concubine.

In studying Greek tragedy, it is important to distinguish between the poet's own point of view, which is to be gathered from his work considered as a whole, and his representation of persons and events adapted to the beliefs of his audience. Athena in the ‘Ajax,’ for example, appears in various aspects, in some of which her divine wisdom may seem to be overshadowed with caprice and cruelty, but the real motive of her introduction into the play is to inspire Odysseus with that moderation and clemency towards his enemies which is the keynote of the concluding scene. (Compare the colloquy between king Pausanias and Lampon of Aegina in Herodotus ix. 78.) It is evident that while retaining their reality for the imagination, the gods of polytheism were becoming virtually, for the higher minds, either the exponents, of popular religion or the symbols of some dominant idea. In the language of the fifth century the notion of Theos, god, has become generalised so as to receive many applications outside the sphere of customary worship. When Sophocles says that Time is an ease-giving god (χρόνος γὰρ εὐμαρὴ ϴεός), the deified abstraction becomes transparent, and when Euripides goes further and says of Shamefastness (αἰδώς) that it is an ineffectual goddess (ἀρϓὸς ἡ ϴεός), we see that the traditional notion of deity itself is wearing thin. The prominence given, to individual deities in the several plays is found to vary according to the data of the legend, the scene of the action, and other external circumstances. In the ‘Trachiniae,’ for example, not Apollo but the Dodonean Zeus is the giver of the oracle. This would not be the case unless the poet himself sat somewhat loose to the actual religion of his countrymen.

A wide interval separates the Homeric conception of the world of shadows, whose powerlessness only serves at once to accentuate the brightness of our brief existence and to give it a deep undercurrent of sadness, from the belief in an existence after death, which is prominent in the earlier tragedies. This belief had its roots in primitive observances which in central Greece had never lost their force, although the Ionians of Asia Minor had forgotten them, but which had received a new impulse from the growth of hero-worship, and a new meaning from the teachings of Orphism. Aeschylus, as his manner is, points us back to a past stage of culture, or, as in the ‘Persians,’ to what he imagines to be the stage of culture attained in barbarous lands. Greek imagination thus works by contrast, whether of time or place. But his supernatural scenes, such as the apparition of Clytemnestra or of Darius, have a convincing force and true sublimity which implies the actual survival of beliefs akin to them. The long Kommos or lament in the ‘Choephoroe’ at the grave of Agamemnon would not have been permitted in actual life by the Solonian law; yet the poet's contemporaries must have still really imagined that the spirit of the dead could be revived by libations and incantations at his tomb. The state of mind which prompted the summoning of the Aeacidae to Salamis was still a living power. This close association between Hades and the grave is less clearly present in Sophocles, although of course the tomb of Ajax in the Troad, like that of Oedipus at Colonus, is still imagined as containing the hero himself. Such imaginative belief is inseparable from the fable of either play; but the underworld is thought of by the poet himself in a manner not less vivid, but less concrete. The land of souls, as well as Olympus, the habitation of the gods, is to his mind all the more venerable because it is unseen. Neither to Olympus nor to Hades is a distinct place assigned, except above and beneath. The blessed are not exempted from Hades or sent to ‘islands of the blest,’ but their condition in the unseen world is different from that of others: such at least is the belief implied in the well-known lines about the happiness of those who have seen the mysteries:—

How blest are they,

Who ere they travel to the viewless land

Have seen these mysteries. They alone in Hades

Have life. The rest have nought but misery.

But the characteristic difference is, that whereas in Homer the body is the man, while the shade flits underground, in Sophocles it is the person himself who passes beneath, taking with him all that was essential to him here, retaining his affections and relationships, and finding a true welcome from his kindred who have gone before. (See above p. 230, sepulchral monuments.) He retains also (this is part of the popular belief) the power of being a source of bane to his enemies. The change which is thus implied in the manner of conceiving the state of the dead must have had various phases, some of which have left no trace. A curious light is thrown upon the subject by the epitaph over those Athenians who fell at Potidaea in 432 B.C. on a tablet now in the British Museum, in which the souls of the brave are spoken of as having gone into the sky: a belief which increasingly prevailed in the later centuries. (See esp. Soph. ‘Aj.’ 1192, Eur. ‘Suppl.’ 533.)

In some points of view Sophocles, as compared with Aeschylus, may be regarded as reactionary. He relies more on Homer and the epic cycle, and less on the innovations of lyric poetry which looked back to Hesiod. He is less pan-Hellenic and more purely Attic, and his aristocratic feeling is more severe, although if Aeschylus had lived another twenty years, one cannot tell how he might have regarded the party of Cleon. Sophocles' notion of eternal law is coloured by the immemorial tradition of the family or the clan as opposed to those enactments which had a political motive and set expediency before traditional right. If there is any truth in the story that he was appointed general because of the success of the ‘Antigone,’ this may have been due rather to the sympathy and support of the great families than to the acclamation of the people. Antigone defies Creon, not merely as an arbitrary ruler, but as a parvenu. And together with the all-searching humanity which is his chief note as an artist and a poet, there is traceable here and there an esteem for princely qualities and a contempt for the vulgar which make it credible that he may really have been one of the Probuli in his eighty-second year. Even should the hypothesis which I formerly advanced as to the date of the ‘Oedipus Coloneus’ prove unfounded, it is certain that the poet's deep and tender piety towards the sanctities of his native deme betrays his sympathy for the knightly dwellers at Colonus, whose assertion of their ancient privileges made the precinct of Poseidon there a suitable place for the inauguration of the aristocratic constitution of the Four Hundred. Poseidon Hippius, Athena Hippia, and the Dread Goddesses who haunt the favoured spot, are set against the deities of the same name whose seats in the Acropolis formed the centre of the popular religion. The hope of the Eupatridae lay in reviving the ancient local rites which had been supplanted through the constitution of Cleisthenes. Yet his poetry reflects the changes of the time: the harsh vindictiveness of Electra and the dark end of the ‘Trachiniae’ seem to have coincided with the embitterment that preceded the close of the first part of the Peloponnesian war, while in the last-mentioned play his human sympathy extends (if I am right in my conjecture) to the captive Heraclidae. And the solitary of Lemnos is allowed to exclaim, when he hears that Thersites has survived Ajax, ‘What is one to make of these things when, in praising what is divine, I find the gods doing evil?’ That is the nearest approach in Sophocles to the occasional cynicism of Euripides. But in other ways the ‘Philoctetes,’ certainly a drama of his latest years, exhibits a stage of ethical reflection passing beyond the limits which the Greek consciousness had hitherto attained. Taking a hint from the Homeric picture of Achilles as one who scorned to conceal his thoughts, he represents the son of Achilles as an ingenuous youth who in the last resort finds it impossible to persist in falsehood. Veracity had nowhere until then been so distinctly recognised by any Greek as an element of ideal nobleness.

Before passing for the time from tragedy, it is worth, while to take account of one circumstance that gave exceptional scope to its creations, in addition to the freedom which belonged to Dionysiac worship. The greater Dionysia, at which most, if not all, of the extant tragedies were produced, occurred in early spring, at the time when foreigners were most wont to visit Athens. The members of the Delian league, or at a later time the subject allies, were present in great numbers, and formed not the least important part of the audience. The plays were composed, not for Athens only, but equally for all Ionia. This may even help to account for some of the peculiarities of tragic diction, which have given rise to several rival theories. The word translated ‘tyrant’ had long since become odious at Athens, where the memory of the tyrannicides Harmodius and Aristogiton was fondly cherished, and yet in representing the heroic age, the term is continually employed with no disparaging association. This is more easily accounted for when it is remembered that the Hellenic cities of Asia Minor had long been familiar with despotic government, and in many cases had learned to tolerate it. Even under democratic institutions, the ‘monarch’ (μόναρχος) continued to be the title of the chief magistrate of Cos.

A question of some interest remains. It is a curious circumstance, though hitherto it has hardly received the attention which it deserves, that Attic tragedy from the first revolved continually about the legends of Thebes and Argos. Dionysus was a Theban god, and in passing from his legend to other fables the tragic poets may have been first attracted by his congeners of the Cadmeian stock. Also the horrors of the house of Labdacus supplied subjects eminently suited for tragic handling. This last reason also applies to ‘the tale of Pelops' line.’ Both these traditions had figured largely in epic poetry, especially the poems of the cycle. Yet there may have been an additional reason. The birth of tragedy coincided with the reign of Pisistratus, who strengthened himself by close alliance with Argos and probably with Thebes. ‘The friendship with Argos,’ says Aristotle, ‘began when Pisistratus married the Argive woman.’ May not this circumstance have influenced the early development of tragic art? If that may be conceded, the conservatism always attending an art when once established, in regard to the choice of subject, will account for the rest.

The other fine arts, as we call them, followed in the wake of poetry, but had their own independent growth and development, of which we are beginning to know more than formerly. As they were mainly applied to the building and adornment of the temples, they were still more thoroughly penetrated than poetry was with the religious spirit. But they also fully shared the humanising poetic impulse, becoming more and more emancipated from the stiffness of convention. As the Greek gods delighted in nothing so much as a perfected humanity, the Greek sculptor applied all his powers to the representation of the divinely human. The Argive and the early Attic schools vied with each other, and in comparing the Aeginetan marbles with even pre-Pheidian art at Athens, we see how rapidly the artists of this period had advanced towards the unimpeded expression of their ideal.

Of the art of Pheidias and his disciples enough still remains to give us a glimpse of the spiritual atmosphere which it shed around it, and which made the Athens of Pericles so glorious an embodiment of those perfections which Athena loved. His master-work, the great Zeus at Olympia, was said by the consent of all antiquity to lift the mind of the beholder above mortal things. The strongest testimony to this effect is Livy xiv. 28, where Aem. Paullus (B.C. 167) is making his progress through Greece. He came to Olympia: ‘ubi et alia quaedam spectanda visa, et Iovem velut praesentem intuens motus animo est.’ Perhaps with the exception of some modern strains of music, art was never more effectually employed in the service of religion. The genius of Pheidias and the accomplishments of his scholars have tended to eclipse the labours of his predecessors and immediate contemporaries, such as Myron of Athens and Ageladas and Polycleitus of Argos. This, however, is partly due to the fact that so much of Pheidian work, comparatively speaking, remains in the original. Recent discoveries have shown that the art of this period had reached a height of conception and execution, before the work of Pheidias culminated, which has hardly been equalled since, and also that it was far more varied and more rich in character than was conceived by the generation of whom Winckelmann in Germany and Flaxman in England are the types.

Those softening influences which we have seen working in the later plays of Sophocles produced a modification of Pheidian art in the work of Praxiteles, in which perhaps there is some loss of strength, but an even more penetrating humanity and a more absolute freedom. There remained another aim for sculpture of a more doubtful kind, but of unquestionable value, while it was held within the limits of Greek moderation: this was the attempt to give to human groups the perfection not only of form but of action and expression. According to Sir Charles Newton, the great master in this kind was Scopas, who in other ways introduced a degree of minuteness and naturalism hitherto unattained. The art in all these stages was applied to religious uses, and even the portrait statues of the earlier time were doubtless intended to be dedicated and set up in the precincts of some god (Paus. vi. 4 § 5). Together with the humanising tendency of Praxiteles came the increasing love of representing beardless youth, in which at once the skill of the sculptor was put to its last test, and an idiosyncrasy of the Greek mind was gratified.

The earlier statues of Hermes were bearded, more in accordance with Homer's description than the Hermes of Praxiteles. Another beardless form was that of the boy Zeus of Ageladas, worshipped by the people of Aegae (‘behold divineness no elder than a boy’). Very noticeable in the religious aspect is the persistence of the type under all these changes of treatment. Compare for example the metopes representing the labours of Herakles in the earlier and later temples at Selinus and again at Olympia. In all there is the simple figure of the hero and of that which he is vanquishing, with, the person of Athena standing by. The later representation conveys a sense of purity and strength combined, and of a perfection of form after which the primeval artist strove in vain. Yet how strictly, down to the fifth century at least, the conventional limits are maintained. The same is true of such groups as Theseus and the Amazon, Lapith and Centaur, and many others. But I leave it to the archaeological enquirer to illustrate this observation more in detail.

The charm of the old ritual and mythology is still unbroken, but within that charmed circle a work of experience and reflection has already begun, which is destined to pass beyond the magic boundary and to assert claims which the old religion could not satisfy. In an age of striking vicissitudes it was impossible that gifted minds roused into extreme activity should acquiesce in the mere repetition of outworn formularies. The higher minds had already separated from the majority more widely than was imagined even by themselves. New thoughts were being cast into the ancient moulds without bursting them, for they were elastic and capable of expansion. So long as the forms of ritual were maintained, and these also were continually expanded and adorned, the descendant of Eumolpus, or of Buzyges, or of Butades, might have misgivings, but he had no power to stem the advancing tide. There is no separation as yet between religion and enlightenment. The most religious minds are the most advanced. All this was presently to undergo a change; but for the time being, until after the outbreak of the Peloponnesian war, such may be taken as a general description. No doubt there was already some opposition between the elements of progress and of conservatism, between the party of Cimon and that of Pericles, when the latter was not yet the leader of the state; but there was no such rift in the religious harmony of the commonwealth as soon afterwards became manifest. Before the supporters of immobility and of obstruction had rallied their forces, the liberalising tendency had taken head. The characteristic note of the age of Pericles may be expressed in a word as the ‘human ideal.’ Without breaking in any way from the past, the central energy of the most active minds was expended on the contemplation of human nature in all its aspects. The phrase ‘human nature,’ so familiar to ourselves, hardly occurs in Greek before Thucydides, but he employs it again and again. He belongs in some ways to a later stage of thought than that which I have tried to delineate in this chapter, but in this expression he sums up explicitly the general aim more or less consciously pursued by the Athenian poets and thinkers who had preceded him—viz. to penetrate the secret of human life and to infuse it with a divine spirit.

  • 1.

    The foundation of such an altar in Attica was attributed to Solon.

  • 2.

    Cp. the Arcadian Despoina.