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Chapter 2: Antecedents and Survivals

Aryan and Semitic elements — Adumbration of the earliest phases — Preceding civilisations — The Mycenaean age — The Aryan stock — Contact with aborigines — Foreign influences — Survivals — Recapitulation.

ALTHOUGH the subject of this volume is religion in Greek literature, it is necessary to premise some observations on the time before the literature begins. But in the case of Greek religion this is especially difficult. Greek culture stands out before us as an independent fact, self-developed out of previous elements which are imperfectly known. Yet our idea of it is inevitably modified as we gain some fragmentary perception of preceding civilisations, and of the constitution of the races surrounding the Aegean and Ionian seas, in ages before the earliest date that can be assigned to the Homeric poems.

Speculation and enquiry are still active about the prehistoric age in what was afterwards called Hellas. Between those who refer everything to an Aryan or Indo-Germanic origin, and the supporters of some theory of early Semitic elements, whether coming in through Egypt and Libya, in the third millennium B.C., or through. Phoenician commerce towards the end of the second millennium, or through Hittite and Phrygian influences at an indefinite time, there is a confused noise of battle that is distracting to the ear. First the discoveries of Schliemann seemed to revolutionise the whole subject. And now those of Mr. Flinders Petrie and Mr. Arthur Evans are threatening to open a new region from which other cross lights enter in. The comparison of late authorities with newly found inscriptions of uncertain date has given rise to a crop of ingenious theories, which it is difficult either to assent to or refute. Another Lobeck seems to be required, who should sift out the more questionable evidence, and determine the residuum of demonstrated fact, however fragmentary it may prove to be. Instead of dogmatising in the present state of knowledge, it may be well to put into the form of queries some considerations which are suggested by recent investigations. Are similar names, traditions, customs, in Arcadia, Boeotia, Thessaly, or in Elis and Aetolia, to be accounted for by a southward or a northward migration, or by common tendencies approaching from east or west? “Was the gap which separates Hellenic culture from the remote past now partly known to us, a period of declension or of development? Are the traces of Semitic origin, some of which are indubitable, to be referred to a Libyan infusion in the third millennium B.C. or to Egyptian domination in the second millennium, or to Phoenician enterprise, or to contact with Phrygia by way of Thrace or across the Aegean? And are we to suppose that ideas, symbols, or rites, which came in from the east, retained much anywhere of their original meaning? The persistence of tradition under all changes is indeed surprising, and there is something disquieting in the circumstance (if Pausanias was rightly informed) that a shape so un-Hellenic as that of the Phigalian Demeter should have lasted into Roman times. But that which is at once difficult and desirable to ascertain in the study of Greek origins, is the “blend of diverse influences meeting in one wide channel. How strangely composite, for example, was the religion of Delphi: the navel of the earth, the grave of Dionysus, and his nocturnal haunt, the seat of magic rites analogous to those of South Sea Islanders, yet under the Apolline priesthood a source of mental and moral illumination spreading far and wide! As we look steadily at the welter of facts and opinions still awaiting settlement, some dim forms begin to look forth upon us from the backward abysm of time.

1. Out of the vagueness of Polydaemonism, there emerges here and there the conception of a male and female power, supreme over all—at first unnamed: it is enough to specify the god and goddess mentioned amongst more recent deities in the Eleusinian rites: also the powers worshipped as Pan and Selene in Arcadia, and at Dodona the mysterious divinities who in historic times assumed the names of Zeus and Dione.

2. There is the power of Earth, beneficent, mysterious, associated with the nether gloom. She is the author of fruitfulness and barrenness; she is the Great Mother—hence identified with Rhea and with Cybele; she has a child who appears and disappears—hence the twofold image of the Great Goddesses, recognised in later times as Demeter and Persephone, Damia and Auxesia, or the like. Earth worship passes readily on the one hand into Chthonian religion, and on the other into the power of divination,

3. Sometimes pairing with the Earth, there is a god of the great deep: known in historic times chiefly as Poseidon. And it is observable that his earliest seats are not upon the seashore, except at Corinth and Troezen, but far inland: at Mantinea, at the Minyan Orchomenos, and in the hollows of Thessalian hills.

4. There is also the power that rules in high places, identified sometimes with Cronos, more commonly with Zeus. He gives the rain, he rules the clouds, he wields the lightning, and lives amidst the brightness of the sky. If 2 and 3 remind us of some Babylonian worships, in Zeus (Dyaus, the bright one) we confidently recognise the Aryan stock.

5. Again there comes in the eternal Feminine in various forms: Aphrodite, Urania, Hera, Artemis. In some regions this class of worship becomes confused, but it is throughout associated with marriage or virginity, with childbirth or widowhood and bereavement. Aphrodite has Phoenician affinities, while Artemis sometimes passes into an almost Phrygian phase, and sometimes assumes the attributes of Persephone.

6. Less mysterious and remote, more familiar but not less reverenced, are sons and daughters of the highest who are also comrades and helpers of mankind. Some of these are ever immortal; others die and are lamented, they are born again and men rejoice. The chief among them are Apollo and Athena, the enlighteners, guides, and defenders of the race who pray to them. Attending on them are various ‘culture deities,’ patrons of the arts of life: Hephaestus, Triptolemus, Asclepius, the Graces and the Muses, the Dioscuri, Hermes, Dionysus, Herakles. That in some regions, as in Thrace or Crete, Dionysus was originally the supreme god, or that the universal hero to whom the name of Herakles was attached came to be identified with a Semitic sun-god, need not trouble us in this general survey.

7. Rumours of contention between divine powers, as between Apollo and Herakles at Delphi, Athena and Poseidon in Attica and elsewhere, have been variously accounted for; the most plausible explanation on the whole, though not universally applicable, is the introduction of a new worship by a conquering race. Tales of contention of the human with the divine, always ending in disaster, may sometimes be mere moral apologues, but may also indicate the gradual triumph of an unfamiliar worship, as in the legends of Lycurgus and Pentheus, of Niobe and of the daughters of Proetus.

8. Persistent amidst all changes in lands which can be called Hellenic, was the sacredness of Hestia, the family hearth. And here at all events, whatever may be thought of other religious phenomena, we are on the firm ground of Aryan tradition. Both word and thing belong to the peculium of the Indo-Germanic race.

The tribes that in historic times inhabited the region, and tended gradually to become one people, had probably never been quite homogeneous, and their civilisation, including their religious rites, was composed of elements derived from different quarters. The extended seaboard, especially of the Peloponnesus and the neighbouring islands, gave large opportunity for contact with foreign influences. To what extent these had been operative in the earliest times is a question as yet undetermined. We know for example that Cyprus was successively occupied by Egyptian and Assyrian conquerors and became an important centre for the wide ramifications of Phoenician trade. In the reign of the Egyptian king Akhenaten about 1400 B.C., it was already, as a dependency of Egypt, the main source from which copper was imported. A small carved work in ivory, found in that island by Professor A. S. Murray and assigned by him to the eighth century B.C., affords a striking example of the effect of mutual contact. The subject, a griffon overcome by a god in human form, is identical with that of a similar work in the Assyrian collection, but the spirit of the execution, conveying so powerfully the dominance of human over brute nature—the same motive, by the way, as that in Botticelli's Minerva and the Centaur—is essentially Greek, and not less so is the perfection of naturalistic art with which the chase of the wild bull and the disasters attending it are represented on the Vaphio gold cups, to which a much earlier date has been assigned. The discoveries of Mr. Arthur Evans go far to prove that well-nigh 2000 years before our era religious rites closely akin to the Egyptian had found their way to the south-eastern coast of Crete. And the dominance of Crete in early times over the islands of the Aegean, asserted by Thucydides, receives a striking confirmation from the recently discovered poems of Bacchylides, from which it appears that the island Ceos, no less than the city of Miletus, claimed to have been colonised by Ecphantus, a descendant of Minos. Such isolated points do not warrant deductive inferences, but they are very suggestive.

It may therefore be worth while to resume, in the merest outline, what we may take for known about these earlier civilisations. At a time not far removed from the date which used to be fixed for the creation of the world, the Semitic power of Babylon had risen and subdued an earlier race, known to archaeologists as Sumerians, whose religious ideas became incorporated with those of the conquering people. The original seat of this religion was Ur of the Chaldees, near the mouth of the Euphrates, on the Persian Gulf. About the middle of the second millennium (1500 B.C.) the power of Babylon was held in check by the dominance of Egypt to the south-west and by the rival power of the Hittites to the west. After the victories of Thothmes III., the king of Egypt was suzerain over parts of Syria, and governed them through native princes with whom he held communication in the Babylonian language. Before 1200 B.C., if we may trust Egyptologists, the inhabitants of the shores of the Aegean and of the Mediterranean were known to the Egyptians under names which are perhaps equivalent to Achaean, Ionian, Sardinian, Tyrrhenian, Danaan, Carian, Lycian. These last are believed by some to be included amongst the allies of the Hittite power gathered together at the great battle of Kadesh in the fourteenth century B.C. From about the year 1300 B.C. the Assyrian power is extending, while that of Egypt is shrinking. A strangely vivid light has been thrown on its decline by the famous Tel-el-Amarna letters which are condensed in Mr. Flinders Petrie's ‘Syria and Egypt,’1 If the Khabiri, there associated with the Amorite and Hittite powers, were the stock of the people afterwards known as Phoenicians, we have here the first clear indication of their arrival on the north Syrian seaboard. Sidon, Tyre, and Byblos are wrested by them from the suzerainty of Egypt in the later fourteenth century. We should therefore be justified in placing the period of the Phoenician sea power in the five centuries between 1300 and the end of the eighth century B.C. Those who have raised a doubt as to the existence of Phoenician domination object to it on the ground that the Greeks borrowed no terms of navigation from that people; but it now appears that Mediterranean shipping had a much longer history, and that the Lycians were a sea-going people at a still earlier time. The great conquerors Sennacherib, Sargon and Assurbanipal swept over the Asiatic continent during the eighth century before Christ, leaving traces of their power even in Cilicia and Cyprus. Soon afterwards there intervened that strange incursion of Cimmerians and Scythians from the north, reaching as far as Ascalon, and resulting in a temporary alliance between the Lydian and Assyrian kingdoms. Assyria fell before the Mede, through the conquest of Nineveh, 605 B.C. About this time the power of Egypt again asserts itself under Psammetichus and his son Necho, the conqueror of Jerusalem; but the military strength of Egypt was now decaying and they employed Greek mercenaries. The intercourse of Greece with Egypt, hitherto indirect and intermittent, is from this time constant and increasing. The settlement at Naucratis, which had succeeded to the camp at Daphne, was now completely recognised, and a race of half-breeds called the ‘interpreters’ became intermediaries between the two peoples.

After the fall of Nineveh, Babylon again comes to the front under Nebuchadnezzar, and the Mede who had destroyed Nineveh was in his turn supplanted by the Persian under Cyrus the Great; but the religion of all these peoples retained an influence from Chaldean tradition, latterly modified, to what extent is not yet clear, by the great mind of Zoroaster.

It appears to be very doubtful whether the direct predominance of Egypt ever passed effectively beyond Cyprus and the southern coast of Crete. The assumption of Foucart that Minos was an Egyptian viceroy has no confirmation in Hellenic traditions, which represent him as the son of Europa, a Phoenician princess. And the Argolic legends which make Danaus the brother of Aegyptus may have grown up in times long subsequent to the eighteenth dynasty. The rapid growth of legend is sufficiently exemplified by the myth concerning the end of Croesus, which in little more than a century assumed for Bacchylides and Herodotus two wholly different forms. The belief of Herodotus that the Thesmophoria were introduced by the daughters of Danaus is contradicted by the association of this village festival with marriage rites, which have more an Aryan than an Egyptian complexion. The references to Egypt in the Homeric poems imply only such acquaintance as would come from distant rumour, and rank with the mention of Libya and other regions having no proved contact with Greek life. The Assyrian did not force his own religion upon those he conquered, but took tribute from them and left them to themselves. Thus from the sixteenth to the seventh century B.C. there was ample room for the separate growth of tribes inhabiting the region afterwards called Hellas, whether Achaean, Danaan, or Carian. At two centres, one on the mainland of Greece and one in Peloponnesus, arose the great kingdoms of Orchomenos and Mycenae. But during the greater part of this period they could only have a limited command of the sea. For until the eighth century, the Phoenicians, a Semitic people, pioneers of adventure, commerce, and manufacture, were practically the only sea power, and became the natural channel through which the lands between the Aegean and Ionian seas must have received most of the influences which reached them from without. The decline of this maritime empire is nearly as obscure as its rise, but may be accounted for by the loss of its principal base of operations, through the weakening of the power of Tyre by Assyria.

Phoenician factories studded the seaboard of the Levant and the Aegean and the other shores of the Mediterranean, as far as Gades and beyond it. Wherever there was mineral wealth they came, and came to stay—as in Cyprus, Thasos, and Euboea; wherever there were purple fisheries—in south Laconia and the Corinthian Gulf, at the Euripus—they established themselves. If M. Bérard is right in a tenth part of his conjectures, they penetrated far inland. But according to Mr. Arthur Evans ‘Semitic’ influence in Greece had dated from a much earlier period, coming in from Egypt by way of Libya. These and similar theories, if once established, might help to explain the readiness with which, in later times, oriental symbolism and magic obtained so wide a hold on the Hellenic mind. But the disappearance of the Phoenician power, as I have said, is not less remarkable than the proofs of its existence. This people seems to have withdrawn gradually from the Aegean, as Greek mariners from Samos, Thera, and elsewhere became more adventurous; and as Tyre declined. They left their mark, however, in Cyprus, over which they long retained some hold; in Crete, where the legends of Minos and Daedalus indicate their presence; at Cythera, Thasos, Samothrace, and even at Rhodes, which appears as Rodanim amongst the sons of Javan in the genealogy of Genesis X. German antiquarians have lately thrown doubt upon the constant Greek tradition of a Phoenician settlement in Thebes. ‘Was ever a Phoenician settlement so far from the coast?’ asks one of them. But Thebes is not further from the coast than Tamasus in Cyprus, the town of Thammuz, where the Phoenicians certainly had lodged. The name of Chalcis, ‘Copper Town,’ suggests Phoenician occupation whether as a commercial depot or for mining purposes, in Euboea; and as the power of Orchomenos increased, the Phoenicians, to secure their hold on Chalcis, might naturally plant a strong fortress, the Cadmeia, on the slopes of Onchestus, somewhat further from the sea. It is perhaps significant that there was a Chalcis also on the Aetolian coast. The fact that the Phoenician alphabet was differently adapted in different parts of Hellas shows that Thebes was not the only centre where such learning was obtained, but does not prove the Greeks to be wrong in asserting that Cadmus brought the alphabet to Thebes. Herodotus says expressly that Membliareus, a companion of Cadmus, remained at Thera; and that the Phoenicians mingled with the Greek population there. The question is an important one, for if the Phoenicians brought with them any seeds of Chaldean worship or mythology, the way from Thebes to Delphi would afford one obvious inlet for these. The Delphic fable of a contest between Herakles and Apollo is especially significant in this regard. It is interesting at least to speculate on the possible connection between a Semitic strain thus insinuated into Hellenic life, and the presence here and there of an intensity of personal feeling, a fiery earnestness of mood, more in keeping with our conception of Semitic than of Aryan life—as in the motive for the attempt of Aristogeiton, and the persistent vindictiveness of Pheretime.

Another people who early found their way into the Aegean were the Tyrrhenians, who made a settlement at Lemnos, and whom Herodotus identified with the Pelasgians.

Thus there are several channels through which foreign, that is mainly oriental, influences might find their way: first the doubtful Libyan infusion; then Phoenician commerce and intercourse, especially where a city once Phoenician was occupied by Greeks; then Egypt (with which, however, direct intercourse was infrequent, until towards the close of the seventh century B.C.), and lastly Asia Minor, where religious impulses, perhaps reinforced from further east, had taken a determined bent, especially in Phrygia.

The similarity of manufactured articles discovered in tombs ranging over a wide region has led to the inference that a race or races owning common tendencies and elements of civilisation must have occupied the lands round the northern shores of the Mediterranean at a time extending far into the second millennium before Christ. The substantial uniformity of this ancient culture, whether implying identity of race or not, bears witness to the fact that in those early days there was more communication between distant parts of the world than was formerly imagined. The traditional connection of Arcadia with Crete and Cyprus, for example, recalls a state of things which in historic times had passed away. Lines of commerce existed both by land and sea, extending from Mesopotamia to the Atlantic, and from the Delta to the shores of the Baltic.

The previous question naturally returns: What was the main stock that being exposed to all these influences reacted on them so powerfully as to create the complex phenomenon known as Greek culture? The evidence tends to show that the race, whencesoever it came, was mainly Indo-Germanic, or Aryan, although modified through intercourse with aboriginal tribes and with Semitic merchantmen. And it is important to observe that through all modifications it retained its identity. The religion of the family in the patriarchal form was its essential core, which might be overlaid from time to time, but could never be supplanted. The institutions of marriage and of inheritance which had come down from immemorial times were never obliterated; and the religion of the hearth, appearing for example in the ceremonies following upon birth, persisted through all changes of public ritual. If we now imagine the first arrival of one branch of this Aryan race in what was afterwards called Hellas, we cannot but suppose that its career of conquest was gradual, and that the extermination of the previous holders of the soil would be by no means complete. The conquerors brought with them at least one sacred name (Zeus=Dyaus) which comparative philology has shown to be derived from the old Aryan speech. But to judge from analogy, the religious rites which they found existing amongst the conquered people would naturally react upon the conquerors, and become incorporated with their own ritual. For example, as they over-ran Arcadia they made their way with difficulty to a mountain fastness, perhaps the last refuge of the conquered people; the summit was occupied by the native god, on whose altars that people had offered human sacrifice in their extremity, with magic ceremonies supposed to bring down the blessing of the rain. Was this a purely savage rite dating from immemorial times, in honour of some wolf-god, himself originally a wolf, and now the protector of the flock; or had Semitic strangers instituted the rite in worshipping some Baal-Ammon, to whom, like the priests on Mount Carmel, they cried aloud in time of drought? The form of the precinct and the absence of a statue, two pillars being the only sacred objects, point strongly in the latter direction; and this hypothesis is also rendered probable by the analogy of the cult of Athamas in Northern Greece, of Artemis Brauronia on the Attic shore, and of Artemis Laphria at Calydon, near the opening of the Corinthian Gulf. However this may have been, the conquerors accepted the ancient worship under a new name; the altar was consecrated afresh to Zeus, the god of the sky, to whom mountain tops were especially dear. But the new deity retained the ancient attributes as Zens Laphystius, and was worshipped with some part of the old ritual. By some such means it came to pass that the same deity had different attributes in different localities. Perhaps the most singular of such survivals was the worship of the Dodonaean Zeus. In that highland retreat, the Greek invaders had found a primitive tree worship combined with veneration for a male and female deity, whom the newcomers named Zeus and Dione. The priests, a sort of Druids, still in Homer's time lay upon the ground, no doubt watching over the life of the tree, not taking time even to wash their feet, and were the objects of a special reverence, which made Dodona the centre of oracular wisdom. According to the fable in Herodotus, the oracle itself was in some way related to that of Ammon in Africa, and to the Hyperboreans, whose tokens were annually sent also to Delos. The sacredness of Styx (a duplicate of the Arcadian river), of Acheron and Cocytus found acknowledgment in the same region, How this is to be interpreted is obscure; but it seems to imply that the oracle was at some period, of which a dim tradition remained, superinduced upon an earlier ritual. Some secret correspondence between priests and soothsayers at distant centres is a possibility that is not to be ignored. What mainly concerns us here is the conception, without which the whole subject becomes a hopeless tangle, of what may be termed the contamination of worships. The Aryan invaders may be supposed to have given to the nature-deity the name of their own supreme god, while they did not venture to disuse the primeval barbarous rite which had engrained itself in the minds of the inhabitants.

The cult of Artemis presents another example of the variety superinduced upon Greek worship through the Hellenic tendency to identify the gods of alien races with their own. The cruel Artemis of Brauron was identified with a goddess of similar propensities on the Tauric Chersonese; while her namesake at Sparta was satisfied in historic times with the blood of young men effused in scourging—their endurance “being thus tested, like that of American Indian braves, on the threshold of manhood. The divine huntress, sister of Apollo, presiding over birth and death and maidenhood, was at Ephesus again identified with a great Phrygian or eastern nature-power which never became completely Hellenised or humanised. And yet how beautifully the Greek spirit shines forth in the work of the artist who has represented the restoration of Alcestis from death, after her self-sacrifice, on one of the pillars of the temple dedicated by Croesus, the first letters of whose name are still upon the basement! Nor could the Athena worshipped at Barca and Cyrene, and associated with the Lake Tritonis in Libya, be more than accidentally connected with the daughter of Zeus, the mistress of Athens. It need therefore not surprise us if when we come to treat more at large of some of the most prominent forms of Greek worship, such as that of Herakles, of Aphrodite, or even of Poseidon, we find Phoenician and other foreign elements inextricably blending with native conceptions.

Many isolated ceremonies noticed by Pausanias as still—connected with local cults in his own time have a complexion that recalls primeval religion. For example, at Triteia, an inland city of Achaia, he found a sacred place of the ‘Greatest Goddesses,’ as they were called, probably identified by the Greeks with Demeter and Persephone, whose annual festival was of an orgiastic nature. The images of these holy powers were, as they had always been, of clay, symbolising, perhaps, the fertility of the ground. Such magic symbolism, similar to what Herodotus and Pausanias describe as existing in Aegina and Troezen in the age before the Persian war, where it was thought necessary that the images should be of olive wood from Athens, might, of course, originate afresh at almost any period, but it is natural to suppose that, like the use of white poplar-wood and of the water of the Alpheus at Olympia, it may be a survival of primitive tradition. These examples may suffice to indicate a general phenomenon—namely, the effect produced by the reaction of primeval local ceremonies upon the Aryan deposit. This may be assumed as one of the many causes of an almost infinite variety in the popular worship of deities, who throughout Hellas were called by the same names. From the Great Goddesses of Triteia, or the Troezenian Damia and Auxesia, to the Demeter of Eleusis or of Cnidos, there is a greater gap than can easily be filled by the progress of a purely Hellenic culture.

Mr. Matthew Arnold, in his treatment of the legend of Merope, has shown a fine appreciation of the mode in which the Greek imagination remoulded the fragments of animal worship that survived in their ritual. In alluding to the fable of Callisto, that is, of Artemis transformed into a bear, he beautifully suggests the persistence of human feeling under the rugged disguise.

But his mother, Callisto,

In her hiding-place of the thickets

Of the lentisk and ilex,

In her rough form, fearing

The hunter on the outlook,

Poor changeling! trembled.

Or the children, plucking

In the thorn-choked gullies

Wild gooseberries, scared her,

The shy mountain bear!

Turning, with piteous,

Distressful longing,

Sad, eager eyes,

Mutely she regarded

Her well-known enemy.

Low moans half uttered

What speech refused her;

Tears coursed, tears human,

Down those disfigured

Once human cheeks.

With unutterable foreboding

Her son, heart-stricken, eyed her.

The Gods had pity, made them stars.

That is the manner in which Greek poets dealt with the bull Achelôus, the heifer Io, the equine Demeter, Philomela, Procne and the rest: accounting for what was really the earlier form by a theory of metamorphosis. In like manner they were able to assimilate and to transfigure the monstrous types of griffin, sphinx, chimera, harpy, siren, &c., often giving quite a new significance to the borrowed form.

In trying to imagine the religious condition of any tribe or community within Hellenic limits, in what is vaguely known to us as the Mycenaean age, we have thus to take account not only of Aryan tradition, and of the originality of the Achaean race, but (1) of immemorial usages clinging to each several locality, especially amongst herdsmen and tillers of the soil; and (2) of foreign influences operating chiefly at great centres, such as Argos or Thebes, which, although their effect was mainly visible in art, yet coloured in a less degree the tissue of religious sentiment and imagination. Many opportunities of dealing with the former point will occur in the sequel. Some remarks upon the latter topic may fitly find place here.

There is good reason to suppose that the dynasties which successively prevailed in Hellas and in the islands, Siphnos, Paros, Naxos, Aegina, Argos, Thebes, imported much not previously existing amongst their countrymen. The islands, had the start in civilisation, not to mention Crete and the legendary fleet of Minos, which put down piracy and instituted a reign of comparative peace; the islanders, even when raiding one another, had more intermission from peril and disturbance than the tribes on the mainland. The wild beasts were more easily subdued; the wealth which the island chief amassed was more securely held, since to pass a boundary and drive a neighbour's cattle was easier than to cross the narrow seas in twenty-oared galleys. Living in comparative tranquillity, the islanders had more opportunity for cultivating the ground, and for developing the special resources of their land. Thus Siphnos in very early times had gold and silver mines which made the island important and envied. The Siphnian treasury at Delphi, if rightly so identified, gives evidence of this. Paros from its marble quarries, and Naxos from its fertility, had each a long career of prosperity. But above the rest Aegina long exercised a predominant power. Her prowess, which Greek tradition dates only from Aeacus, must have had a yet earlier than that imaginary source. The prevalence of the Aeginetan talent before the time of Pheidon leads to the natural inference that the commerce of a very early time was dominated by the Aeginetan power. Some time afterwards the Achaeans of the mainland came under the predominance of the dynasty which Hellenic legend recognises as that of Pelops. According to the story they brought their wealth from Phrygia to Argolis, and found a secure treasure-house for it, not in an island, but amongst the fastnesses of the hills. To Atreus, as to the Kenite, it might be said: ‘Strong is thy dwelling place, and thou makest thy nest in a rock.’

Whether they found or brought with them that religion of Hera, which long prevailed in Argolis, is impossible to say. Nor can it be confidently determined whether the association of this worship with that of Epaphus, a Greek form of the Egyptian Apis, and the legend of the daughters of Danaus connected with it, was earlier or later than the seventh century B.C. But it is manifest that here again we have a contamination of cults. The bovine goddess of an agricultural race, the patroness of marriage rites, is identified with the Eastern lady of the sky, while the transparent symbolism of the fable of the wandering moon watched by a thousand cruel eyes, till the watcher is transfixed at dawn, has been superinduced upon the original worship. A still further modification, prevalent at Cyrene in Alexandrian times, was embodied in the ‘Aetia’ of Callimachus. One feature in the Perseid legend is singular, and points to some early conflict between endogamous and exogamous customs. The daughters of Danaus, instructed by their father, regard as unholy and unnatural the proposed marriage with the sons of their uncle Aegyptus. Perhaps a distant light is cast on this obscurity by a sentence of Sir Richard Burton's: ‘From the very beginning of his history the Jew, like his half-brother the Arab, always married, or was expected to marry, his first cousin.’

To recapitulate briefly some of the views advanced in the preceding pages. Our materials for constructing an image of prehistoric Hellas, although more abundant than what lay before Thucydides, are fragmentary in the extreme. There are no monuments as in Egypt even of isolated periods in a long line of kings; nor even such obscure accounts as have lately been deciphered respecting Babylonian conquests and achievements in culture: little more indeed than bits of decoration on broken potsherds, personal adornments—chiefly of gold and bearing marks of foreign influence, and the structure of their tombs. The most definite clue to such knowledge as is still attainable is afforded by the evidence which archaeologists have collected of the widespread prevalence of a uniform scale of weights and measures, some of which have been identified with those of Babylon. Recent discoveries have inevitably awakened curiosity, and imagination is stimulated to fill in the outlines with some help from comparison and conjecture.

The tribes who lived about the shores of the Aegean seem to have been of the same kindred and much of the same stage of culture with those who lined the coast of the Mediterranean, as far westwards as the Gulf of Lions. They belonged to what is designated the Neolithic age, or are in transition from this to the age of bronze. The prevailing race was Aryan, mingled with some inferior aboriginal stock. Phoenician settlements were scattered along the seaboard, but few of them (unless Tiryns is Phoenician) remained so distinctively Semitic as those at Carthage, Eryx, or Panormos. What religious elements distinguished the communities or the sparse and scattered populations thus circumstanced we can only conjecture, but we may be confident as to some isolated points. It is fairly certain, for example, that to the Aryan race in all their wanderings the fire of the central hearth, with the enclosure surrounding it, was permanently sacred.

In the Homeric ‘Hymn to Aphrodite,’ Hestia is the daughter of Kronos, i.e. the sister and contemporary of Zeus. And in the ‘Laws’ of Plato, Hestia, Zeus and Apollo guard the citadel. A striking survival of the primitive tradition is the Spartan custom mentioned by Xenophon, or whoever is the author of the treatise ‘de Rep. Lac.,’ to the effect (xiii. cc. 2, 3) that whenever the king went forth to war he performed a sacrifice in his own house, and the fire from that altar was carried with him to the frontier. There he sacrificed anew, and the fire of this second sacrifice went on before him, and was never extinguished until his safe return.

Nor can there have been absent some recognition of the sacredness of other elemental powers. The fruitfulness of earth, the force of the winds, the incalculable movements of the sea must have demanded worship even apart from foreign intercourse. Some cave whose dark profundity men feared to penetrate lest it might usher them into the lower world, or some deep well whose crystal clearness imaged the sky and the surrounding scenery as in a Camera Lucida, stimulated imagination to suggest means for communicating with the divine. Nor could the race have entirely lost that reverence for the supreme brilliance of the sky (Uranus=Varuna) or for the sun in his strength, and the moon walking in brightness, which are among the oldest inheritances of Indo-Germanic peoples. The name of Zeus, the giver of light, came with them from their first abodes, and was identified with the local god who was generally imagined as inhabiting the summit of some lofty mountain. The path of migration from Thessaly to Boeotia, from Boeotia and Aetolia to Arcadia and Elis, is marked by similarities of worship and of divine attributes which permanently remained, as for example those of the Itonian Athena. That kings and chiefs at least were worshipped after death we learn from the construction of the beehive tombs, in which the ante-chamber was clearly intended for the commemorative feast. But neither Zeus nor the forefathers of the conquering race could supplant or extinguish local sanctities, native to each region. The depth of the forest, the darkness of the cave, the living waters of springs and rivers, the fire of the volcano, were animated with airy superhuman presences which from time immemorial had been feared and propitiated.

We have further to imagine the effect on an impressionable, keen-witted people of casual intercourse with strangers. Before they had themselves learned to go in quest of merchandise the Phoenicians came and brought commodities from alien shores. If we suppose a crew of those eager adventurers, storm-stayed in some port amongst the Cyclades, compelled to fraternise for a while with those who bartered with them, what tales of wonder might they not pour into the all-receptive mind of the Achaeans? Through some such channel Babylonian and Egyptian elements may have entered even into primitive Greek religion, although the factors were probably reinforced through the actual fusion of Semitic and Aryan elements at Thebes, and perhaps at Tiryns. The bright Achaean intelligence may have thus early received a tinge of oriental sadness as in borrowing the Linus-song, and learned to conceive dimly of a world beyond the grave, in which the perjurer and the parricide would be punished for their sins, or even of a judgment of souls, of which the rumour reached them out of the ‘Book of the Dead.’ They learned to name the constellations, the Bear, Arcturus, Orion, and the Pleiades and Hyades, so important for mariners. (The name Sirius, however, is undoubtedly Aryan.) We know not how early they may have been taught to conceive of a superhuman conflict between good and evil powers, of the rebellious Typhon, of dragons subdued by gods in human shape. The mystic power of prophecy so prominent in Babylonian worship might also thus impress itself from afar off in echoes borne from distant shrines, such as that of Branchidae, which some adventurous chieftain might visit with gifts in the hope of gaining further advantage. The oracle of Dionysus in Thrace, of Zeus at Dodona, of Apollo at Pytho, became established in places which had probably been held sacred from a still more remote antiquity, but those who worked the oracles borrowed some of their methods from elsewhere.

Social relations between individuals and families, and even between tribe and tribe, were in process of formation. Some kind of patriarchal bond held together their village communities, while here and there, as in Lycia, some trace of a quite different phase of family life, holding not of the father but of the mother, seems to have survived. A sense of kinship, even with strangers, must have sprung up between men who understood each other's speech. They would compare worships and recognise the same divinities under different names. Civic life was not as yet, unless that were to be called a city where some great and wealthy lord had built his fastness, round which his retainers clustered; still less can many villages have been united under one settled government. They might combine for purposes of defence or even aggression: the inhabitants of the plain to resist the mountaineers, and the like. Or many tribes might temporarily coalesce to repel the advance of some great conqueror. But we can hardly suppose that there were great assemblies to which many tribes resorted at once, as at the Delian festival in later times. Yet this is not impossible. What an opportunity it would be for the display of such ornaments as those lately discovered in Aegina, as well as for feats of strength and speed! The fact that Troezen and the Boeotian Orchomenos both belonged to the Amphictiony of Calauria, worshipping Poseidon, seems to carry us back to a very early time. All is conjectural, but to let one's fancy play about the chasm of ignorance may at least serve to counteract the fallacy of supposing that times of which we know nothing were necessarily vacant of activity or altogether rude.

External influences, however, do not act equally upon art and on religion. People at an early stage of culture, however receptive, are too entirely steeped in the awe and reverence which has descended to them from their forefathers to adopt heartily or entirely a system of worship coming from abroad. The imitative faculty may be active in grafting foreign features on native religion, but the inherent force of that religion will always prevail over such adjuncts, which to begin with are but imperfectly understood. The art itself appears principally at a few centres where it was encouraged by reigning dynasties; and here a fresh element of uncertainty comes in. Were the beehive tombs at Mycenae and Orchomenos, for example, the genuine products of Achaean or Pelasgian invention, or did some wealthy chieftain, to begin with, bring over architects and mastermasons from abroad? However this may have been, the burial custom, which is here involved, implying the worship of ancestors, was of native growth. The minor remains bear evidence, not merely of imitation, but of the independent originality of the Achaean race, and evince a keener interest in reproducing the forms of the surrounding world and the activities in which men took delight, than in expressing religious feeling or adumbrating a world unrealised. Incidents of war and the chase have more fascination for the Mycenaean artist than traditions of the past or the conventional reproduction of foreign prototypes. And to speak more generally, had Egyptian or Assyrian priests been never so generous in communication, it was impossible for a Greek of any age simply to assimilate Egyptian or Chaldaean ideas.

That Cadmus brought letters with him to Thebes, and with letters perhaps the elements of arithmetic, or even the signs of the Zodiac and other secrets of navigation, or that—as Aristotle maintains—the elements of geometry were first known in Egypt and communicated to some enquiring Greek, are important statements and may possibly be true. But except in so far as these scientific principles may have been necessary to the mechanical training of the architects of the early temples, or the sculptors of archaic statues, they have little direct bearing upon the growth of Hellenic religion. Art reacts on ideas but does not create them. Those who have seen both Egyptian and Hellenic monuments are aware that the religious sentiment which guided the hand of the artist in either land was largely different. The pious Egyptian thought less of the present world than of a future state of being; his principal gods were judges of the dead rather than guides of the living. His highest skill was spent in the adornment of colossal tombs. The divine powers whom the Greek chiefly worshipped were the sources of Life and of Light, to whom the tribe, the household, or the village owed its yearly prosperity, and on whom depended its greatness or its decay. The noblest temples were built in token of thanksgiving for some signal mercy and declared the people's sense of the actual presence of their god, whom they delighted to represent in a form of perfected humanity, not only in eye and brow immortal, but in every lineament, joint, shape, and limb. The tombs of great men were worshipped, because the dead man was imagined as having power over the life of his successor; but although burial was so important, no man, however wealthy, in times characteristically Hellenic and in central Greece, thought of spending elaborately on the preparation of his tomb. Greek law-givers expressly forbade great pomp in funerals. The Mausoleum in Lycia, though adorned with splendid works of Greek art, had an essentially barbarian cast. Another difference here comes in: from an early time a sense of equality, or at least of moderation, went hand in hand with the idealism which was the inalienable portion of the Greek. The Assyrian sought to deify the individual conqueror, whom he represented of colossal stature, and perhaps with wings, but otherwise with realistic fidelity in form and habit as he lived, surrounded as in life with servants and tributaries, each bringing his appropriate offering. Notwithstanding hieroglyphic symbolism, something of the same kind is true of the Egyptian monuments: they also sought to deify man; the instinct of the Grecian worshipper was to humanise deity. The image of Pausanias, king of Sparta, that stood by the altar of Athena of the brazen house, forms an apparent exception. But the fall of Pausanias, not long after this act of Asiatic pride, proved him tainted with barbarism, and it will be remembered that his attempt to inscribe his own name at Plataea was frustrated by what may be described either as the jealousy or the sense of equality that prevailed amongst his allies. That his image should have remained in situ is a characteristic touch of Greek moderation and conservatism. The Roman senate would have abolished it. The Persian porch at Athens, in which the historian Pausanias saw the marble forms of distinguished Persians, including Mardonius and Queen Artemisia, may perhaps be cited as an instance of Athenian pride, but it is a pride which finds expression, as in the ‘Persae’ of Aeschylus, in honour done to vanquished enemies.

To return once more to prehistoric times. Whether they had anything corresponding to the temples of the historic period, or a class of priests employed in taking care of them, or images of wood or stone carved curiously to represent the deity, is still an open question. It is impossible to say how far back such rude approximations to the human form as have been found at Amorgos and in other islands may be supposed to carry us. But it is possible that Xoana of wood or marble, which were afterwards regarded with peculiar reverence, may have come down from a period far remote. Dr. Waldstein discovered at the Argive Heraeum an upright stone which seems to have been an object of worship, and may be the very unhewn pillar which Pausanias describes as symbolising the goddess. Grotesque and terrific shapes, such as the Gorgon head derived from the Arabian Bes, or such monstrous combinations of the human and serpentine as the figure of Erichthonios on the pediment preserved in the Acropolis, belong in all probability to the period following upon the bloom of Mycenaean art. And some aniconic symbols (such as the conical form of Aphrodite) may reflect Phoenician worship.

Some questions may be suggested to which there is no certain answer.

1. Are the gods of Greece originally those of a hunting or a pastoral or an agricultural people? All elements appear to have been present, but in what degrees it is extremely difficult to say.

2. Were those rites which have less to do with patriarchal life or with the religion of the family, such as the worship of Demeter and Dionysus, inherent in Greek religion from the first, or brought in afterwards? With regard to Demeter, the answer seems to be that her worship grew naturally out of primitive village festivals, but was greatly modified in historic times by external influences. These, however, for reasons given above, can hardly have had much force before the seventh century: the Thesmophoria was associated with marriage customs, and the cult of Demeter in this respect resembled that of Hera. And if the Argolic empire of Pheidon belongs, as recent historians maintain, to the seventh century, when Greeks were settling at Daphne or Naucratis, and Amasis sent offerings to Delphi, the attribution of the Thesmophoria to the Danaides—indeed, the whole legend of the Perseidae—may well have taken shape about that time. As to Dionysus, it is better to reserve our discussion of him for a subsequent chapter.

One more consideration may be added here. It is often said that for the understanding of a religion, one should look not at what people feel or think, but at what they do. This is perfectly true where origins are in question. But in studying the development of religion, it must be always borne in mind that many things are reverently observed of which the original significance is utterly lost; an often blind conservatism, and clinging to continuity, is a constant attribute of religious feeling. The point really in question is, not what they do, but in what spirit they do it. Shakespeare, in his beautiful delineation of the natural religion of Imogen's brothers, who had been brought up in the cave, away from the court, has finely touched this point. In laying out Fidele, whom they suppose to be dead, the elder says to the younger:

We must lay his head to the East,

My Father hath a reason for 't.

That is all, and that is enough.

We are now prepared to enter on the proper subject of this volume: ‘Religion in Greek Literature from Homer to Plato.’ And to prevent disappointment it may be well to premise that I do not profess to deal, except incidentally, with the religion of the common folk, which, varying as it did in different localities, and in many places continuing without substantial change down to Christian times—(Demeter, Persephone, the Nereïdes, Olympus, Charon, &c., are recognisable at the present day)—affords a fascinating subject for endless investigation. Had I undertaken such a task after a few years of study, I might well be deterred from the attempt to execute it, when such admirable and extensive treatises as Mr. Farnell's ‘Cults of the Greek States’ and Mr. Frazer's ‘Pausanias’ are accessible to English readers. As it is, the fact that some ‘survival’ in ritual or mythology belongs to the common stock of universal folk-lore will rather be made the excuse for passing lightly over it in the present work, except where it has manifestly contributed to some higher or more characteristic development.

And yet one curious survival, pointing backward to a phase of tribal religion, may be here described. The Zeus of the Athenian citadel, whose worship was to a great extent overshadowed by that of Athena, had one great festival, the Dipolia, at which a ceremony called the Buphonia, ‘the murder of an ox,’ was continued down to the time of Theophrastus. ‘Stalks of barley and wheat were placed on the altar, and an ox which was kept in readiness approached and ate some of the offering, whereupon it was slain by a priest who was called “the murderer of the ox,” and who immediately threw down the axe and then fled, as though the guilt of homicide were on him; the people pretended not to know who the slayer was, but arrested the axe and brought it to judgment.‘So much is told by Pausanias, but more particulars are given by Porphyry, quoting Theophrastus: ‘Maidens called water-carriers were appointed to bring water to sharpen the axe and the knife; one man handed the axe to another, who then smote that one among the oxen, which were driven round the altar, that tasted the cereal offerings laid upon it; another ministrant cut the throat of the fallen victim, and the others flayed it, and all partook of the flesh. The next act in this strange drama was to stuff the hide with grass, and sewing it together to fashion the semblance of a live ox, and to yoke it to the plough. A trial was at once instituted, and the various agents in the crime were charged with ox-murder. Each thrust the blame upon the other until the guilt was at last allowed to rest on the axe, which was then solemnly tried and condemned, and cast into the sea.’2 To discuss the origin of such a rite is beyond the scope of the present work, but its primitive character is manifest. Compare the sacredness of the kine in the Persian Gathas, and in India to this day. And yet, strangely enough, the trial of the inanimate instrument reappears in Plato's ‘Laws’ (ix. 873 E): ‘If any lifeless thing deprive a man of life, except in the case of a thunderbolt or other fatal dart sent from the gods,—whether a man is killed by lifeless objects falling upon him, or by his falling upon them, the nearest of kin shall appoint the nearest neighbour to be a judge, and thereby acquit himself and the whole family of guilt. And he shall cast the guilty thing beyond the border.’ (See Farnell's ‘Cults.’)

  • 1.
    These letters afford some curious indications of the international workings of religion in an early time.

    1. A Babylonian viceroy asks the king of Egypt for ‘much gold’ for the decoration of a great temple which he is building (to a Babylonian god?)

    2. A Babylonian princess writes to her sister who is dwelling at the Egyptian court, ‘May the gods of Burraburiash (Babylon) go with you!’

    3. The king of Alashia (Cyprus) sends a vial of sacred oil for the anointing of the king of Egypt on his accession.

    4. The governor of a city near Damascus complains that the Hittites have carried off Shamash, his father's god. He asks the king of Egypt for gold to ransom him.

    5. Dushratta of Mitanni (Northern Mesopotamia), in writing to his son-in-law Amenhotep III., not only says, ‘May Istar bless you!’ but sends a statue of Istar, goddess of Nina (Nineveh?), to be worshipped by Amenhotep and returned.

    6. Similarly Ribaddi, the faithful tributary, writing from Gubla (Byblos) says: ‘May the goddess of Gubla give power to the king!’

    7. On the other hand the people of Dunip in their touching appeal for help say: ‘The gods of Egypt dwell in Dunip; but we no more belong to Egypt.’

    8. And, similarly, the treacherous Akiyyi, in asseverating his loyalty, appeals ‘to the king's gods, and the Sun.’

  • 2.

    Quoted in Mr. Farnell's Cults of the Greek States.