THE brilliant era of Mycenean or Achaean civilisation, in which at a few great centres powerful chiefs overawed the surrounding population, had been swept away before successive inroads, the chief of which was spoken of in after times as the Dorian migration. The resources of the heroic kings may have been exhausted by some such combined effort as the expedition to Troy. There followed a long period of unsettlement and misery, which is partly reflected for us in the poetry of Hesiod: a time no longer of frank enjoyment, as when the minstrel sang in the hall of the chief, but one of conscious distress; when peaceful industries were insecure and the civilisation of many years was broken up or had been banished to find a richer development upon the shores of Asia; when first the Aeolians from the north, and afterwards the Ionians, headed according to tradition by the Neleid sons of Codrus, had fled before the advance of alien conquerors. Yet in the intervals of turmoil we are led to infer a silent growth of religion, morality, and imagination. Then and always there were religious influences in Greece which tended towards the unification or grouping of particular tribes, so creating the outlines of a nation which counter-tendencies prevented from being fully formed. The organisation of the Amphictionic council in northern Hellas, the institution of the Olympic games in the Peloponnese, are two great evidences of this general truth. Of these the Amphictionic influence was gradually supplanted by the predominance of Sparta and of Athens alternately, under the favour of the priesthood of Apollo at Delphi; but the Olympian festival, when once it had eclipsed the games on Mount Lycaeus, became more and more important for the whole of Hellas. The mention of the Panhellenes in Hesiod and in the (Boeotian) catalogue of ships implies that some union of Hellenic tribes existed in that early time when Hellas was a district in Phthia, just as already in the Iliad the tribes gathered before Troy are called Παναχαιοί.
We return then to central Greece and come down to the time when Ionia was nourishing, and the Homeric poems had assumed something approaching to their final shape. Meanwhile an independent growth of religious thought and feeling had been spreading silently in Boeotia. The race of kings, of whom the epic poet sang from memory, had passed away. Great changes had intervened. An internecine war between Orchomenos and Thebes had weakened both powers, but ended in the triumph of the Cadmeians. Then came incursions from the north and west. The Boeotians descending from Thessaly overran Boeotia, and what had been Cadmeia was now Thebes; Orchomenos was no longer of any account, but echoes of her broken civilisation still remained, as for instance in the worship of Athena Itonia. The great Dorian migration had occupied the Peloponnese, where the rival powers of Argos and of Sparta were slowly establishing themselves, and the mettle of Sparta was being tested by the first Messenian war. Attica remained unravaged, and had already its sanctuary of Athena in the house of Erechtheus. It was in some such condition of things that the father of Hesiod (for some unknown reason) came across the Aegean from Cyme, and settled in the old country of the Aeolians at Askra in Boeotia. We know this from Hesiod himself. Possessing an imperfect mastery of the art of hexameter verse which had so long flourished on the other side, Hesiod found the worship of the Muses still alive upon the slopes of Helicon. His poetry reflects for us the altered state of central Hellas, when the life of the chieftains at once recorded and idealised in the Iliad was no longer in being, and new thoughts and feelings were awakened amongst those who had remained behind. The warlike incursions that had swept away the reigning dynasties passed over the heads of the humbler population, who were bound to the soil, and either suffered an exchange of masters, or according to the terms proposed to Sicyon, as we learn from Pausanias, submitted to the conqueror on condition of a fresh division of the land. These small peasant-proprietors, as we may term them, were not deserted by the Muse whom they annually worshipped, and in the ‘Works and Days’ of Hesiod we have a welcome glimpse of the imagination about higher things with which they sought to enliven the dreariness of their lot. They are haunted, as one might expect, with superstitious fancies about lucky and unlucky days and the like; they dream of a golden age which has unhappily receded far into the past, and there are those amongst them who meditate more deeply on the things which they have heard concerning gods and children of the gods, and who also seek by simple precepts and pithy sayings to instruct and warn their fellows about the life which they must live. From Hesiod come the famous lines which Aristotle quotes more than once: ‘The man who thinks for himself aright is best of all; he who follows another's rightful thought is also good; but he who neither thinks aright nor listens to another's thought, that man is nothing worth.’ In Hesiod, too, the goddess of Eight is for the first time personified as Dikè:—‘A noise is heard, it is the cry of Justice whom men greedy of bribes are hustling. She weeping comes to visit the abodes of men, bringing evil to her enemies.’ ‘Thirty thousand deathless beings on the Earth are watching over mortal men: unseen they watch where right is done, where cruelty prevails. Moreover Zeus has a virgin daughter, Justice, revered by the Olympian gods. When any does her wrong, she sits by her father Zeus and tells of it, and then the people suffer for the wrongdoing of their overlords.’ ‘The man who wrongs another harms himself.’ Such naïve enforcement of the religion of life is scattered here and there amongst minor precepts about the seasons for ploughing, sowing, and reaping, and the observance for various purposes of lucky and unlucky days.
The idea of a detailed theogony now first appears; in which, as we find it in Hesiod, there are many traces of a more primitive and also of a darker tradition than that which Homer has chosen to perpetuate. The dim allusions to the conflict of Zeus with the Titans and with his father Cronos, which are scattered up and down the Iliad, are here explained, and the succession of generations amongst the children of the earth and sky is elaborately set forth. It would be tedious and unprofitable to enter fully into the details of the mythology, and it would be too long to draw out distinctly the elements of primitive reasoning which in this strange web are interwoven with accidental associations and idle fancies. It must suffice to mark the stage of incipient thought about divine things, which is here registered. The question has occurred to the mind of the age, How did the gods come to be? and this was a first step towards universal speculation about nature and its cause or author.
The line in Homer, whether belonging to the earliest portion of the work or not, ‘ocean the original of gods and Tethys their mother,’ shows already the faint beginnings of such a tendency. The thought of Hesiod, who refers the origin of all things to desire (ἔρως), goes considerably deeper; and it was adopted as a necessary link in the chain of Platonic speculation. But on the whole, the theogony of Hesiod contains few elements of profound or generative thought. It is largely made up out of fragments of primitive reasoning, such as are now familiar to all students of early mythologies. It contains scraps of Eastern tradition, and also indicates the prominence given to certain worships by the importance of the towns in which they were mostly celebrated.
The demi-gods in Hesiod are identified with the kings of the former age, who are now called blessed, and are still looked up to as guardians of mankind. The attempt of some critics to find an historical meaning in the succession of the gold, silver, and iron has no real foundation. The meaning is that things were better and better the further back you went. Some of the more prominent legends concerning the heroic world were accumulated in a poem attributed to Hesiod, and at all events belonging to the same school, the only extant portion of which of any extent is a description of the shield of Herakles, a manifest imitation of the shield of Achilles in the eighteenth Iliad. The chief difference consists in the substitution of legendary and mythological details for the realistic presentation of scenes from ordinary life.
To dwell now a little more particularly on certain points suggested by the body of poetry which has thus been generally described.
1. The aspect of mythology which appears in Hesiod occurs in Homer only in scattered allusions. These allusions, however, cannot without violence be separated from their context and assumed to be later interpolations. The primeval struggles which ended in the conquest of Zeus are implied in the occasional references to the distant place (as far from earth as earth is from the sky) in which Cronos, Iapetus, and the Titans were confined, and where the powers who punish perjury have their seat (cp. Hesiod, ‘Theogony’ 720–725). The passing mention of Typhoeus (for whom see ‘Theogony’ 821–868) occurs, indeed, in the catalogue of ships, which is otherwise thought to have affinities with the Boeotian school; but it is, notwithstanding, a striking fact that such an allusion should be admitted, not only in the ‘Hymn to Apollo,’ but in the canonical text of the Iliad. And certainly, if we glance for a moment at the general features of primitive religion, it must be admitted that the opposition between light and darkness, and the victory of the powers of light, is less likely to have been a secondary than a primary element of mythology.
2. But in the ‘Theogony’ of Hesiod we trace an endeavour, which, whether earlier or not, is certainly other than the effort of the minstrel to realise in a connected narrative the life of an heroic age. The work is a strange conglomerate in which, together with many childish fancies, which it is idle to account for except by the simple love of story-telling that grows out of personification, the working of dimly conscious ideas is notwithstanding to be traced. Some of these fancies are probably due to primitive tradition, and some to more recent or contemporary symbolism. Thus the story by which the separation of earth and heaven and the fertilisation of the ground is accounted for is on a par with the mythology of savage races (cp. Iliad xiv. 97–210). On the other hand, the notion of Cronos, the offspring of earth and heaven, devouring his children, until arrested and subdued by his son and conqueror Zeus, is of a higher but still primitive order. Once more, that Zeus should have Metis (Wisdom) for his first consort, and Themis (Justice) for his second, comes of later reflection, and many points of genealogy such as the description of the progeny of Styx, or that of Night, are of a distinctly allegorical character, in which fanciful etymology also plays a part. This does not justify the allegorising interpretation of the Stoics, or of Bacon's ‘Wisdom of the Ancients,’ which robs primitive symbolism of its native unconsciousness, and ignores its intermittent, accidental working. Yet it is foolish to refuse to see the allegory when it is written in large letters. Hesiod is like his own men of the silver age, remaining a child in his own house, for a hundred years. Yet the child of a hundred years cannot but have thoughts mingling with his childish fancies or shining through them. For example, when Zeus, in order to subdue the Titans, releases the hundred-handed monsters whom he had bound, it is plainly implied that force cannot be subdued by mind alone without the help of power, and the whole conception of a conflict amongst the gods may be regarded as anticipating the leading thought of Heraclitus, that ‘war is the father of the world.’ The problem of the origin of evil is dimly adumbrated in the story of Pandora.
3. It is an obscure question, yet one we can hardly abstain from raising, how far the theology which in Hesiod seems to be localised in Boeotia had a Cadmeian, that is to say, a Phoenician origin. It would be easy to find parallels between the peculiar complexion of the ‘Theogony’ and some phases of Babylonian tradition. The importance attached in ‘Works and Days’ to the rising and setting of the stars (not, it is to be observed, at all in connection with temple worship, but with agricultural pursuits), or to the sacredness of the seventh day, does read like a reminiscence of Chaldea. It is not a little remarkable that Ketô, the prolific mother of so many strange unnatural forms, of which the sea-god Pontus is sire, is, as her name denotes, a monster of the deep, and thus analogous to the fish gods of early Babylonia. On this, and many cognate subjects, it is necessary to suspend our judgment until we have more light, and to rely only upon the facts that are clearly known.
4. In Hesiod, for the first time, the divinity of heroes as the sons of gods is definitely asserted. This would be more clearly apparent if the sequel of the ‘Theogony’ had been completely preserved to us. The legend of Herakles in particular is much more fully developed than in Homer, although, here again, it is not quite safe to rely on the evidence of silence. The hero's crossing the ocean after the oxen of Geryon (‘Th.’ 291–4) has an especially Phoenician air. The allusion in the Iliad to the wounding of Hades by Herakles, in Pylos amongst the dead, is illustrated by the mention in the ‘Shield of Herakles’ of an encounter between the hero and the god of war. Cp. the words of Hera in the fifth Iliad, 385, τλη̑ μὲν Ἄρης κ.τ.λ.
5. The description of the shield of Herakles deserves attention on other grounds. As compared with the shield of Achilles on the one hand, and with the great period of Greek sculpture on the other, it reveals to us an intermediate phase in which art was not dominated either by naturalism or as yet by an ideal of beauty. The images of war represented on the shield are inspired by a sort of ghoulish imagination. The Kêres, or spirits of Doom, digging their huge nails into the corpses of the dead, like the earliest sculptures of Selinus or the monstrous form of Erichthonius on some of the monuments found on the Acropolis at Athens, would be censured as un-Greek, did they not occur in a Greek poem.
The imagery of the poem, apart from such descriptions, has certain features suggestive of a time when the mainland of Hellas was liable to frequent shocks of earthquake. The recurring metaphors drawn from landslips and rocks dislodged from mountains vividly recall the description in Herodotus of the manner in which Apollo defended Delphi from the Mede. (This may remind us of the theory held by some that Hesiod was a poet of Delphi.) The ‘Shield of Herakles,’ even more distinctly than the rest of Hesiodic poetry, shows an undoubted acquaintance with the Iliad, yet is full of rhythmical defects of which neither Homer nor an Homerid could have been guilty. In this connection, the poet's own assertion that his father came from Cyme in Aeolia is not without significance.
1. The ‘Works and Days,’ while reflecting in an interesting manner the personal feeling of the poet, no longer a court minstrel, but a rustic bard, contain a mixture of moral, religious, and prudential aphorisms embodying an ethical ideal, at once different from, and in some ways more advanced than, that of the Iliad and Odyssey. The simple fact that didactic poetry here for the first time takes the place of narrative is most significant. Hesiod is in fact an ἐξηγητής or religious expositor. The Muses say to him ‘We can discourse in lies that look like Truth: But, if we list, we can tell true tales too.’ The Homeric poems reflect the life of the Achaean chieftains in the camp and in the hall—a life abounding in bright energy and in a, joyousness which is rather accentuated than overclouded by the darkness which awaits men after death. We are now to look at life from the other side. Not princely birth or accomplishments but honest industry is regarded as the secret of such limited satisfaction as life affords. The idea of Justice (δίκη) is for the first time clearly developed, and is correlative to the sense of injustice which the people suffer under their new masters, the grasping overlords. The feeling of the misery inseparable from life is deepened, and the longing for a lost ideal is expressed in the fable of the five ages, in the course of which honour (αἰδώς) and right feeling (νέμεσις) are represented as having left the world. Virtue and vice are also clearly opposed; yet power is irresistible—the nightingale must go where the hawk carries him; the singer may not contend with the judge. Not that wealth is despised if got by labour: it is said (line 311) to be accompanied by virtue and glory, while poverty is also the gift of God; nor are the gods as yet exempt from caprice. Though one observe the seasons, yet if Poseidon or Zeus be angry, the ship, even in summer time, is not safe. Superstition and proverbial wisdom are inextricably interwoven: idleness must be avoided, moderation observed,—and the thigh-bones must be duly burned. This implies, however, that every man might still be his own priest. There is little evidence as yet of a temple worship: see for instance the altar to Zeus on Helicon (Hesiod, ‘Theogony’ 4). Reciprocity is one of the laws of human life, but to give is nobler than to receive; in that saying, prudential morality seems to pass out of itself. Yet amongst the moral maxims instead of ‘Bear it that the opposed may beware of thee,’ a twofold recompense of evil is enjoined. The superstitious observances required at line 722 ff. of ‘Works and Days’ have a very primitive look, and the abstinences there enjoined out of reverence for the sun, the open air, Night, and above all the family hearth, have a distinctly Aryan complexion. Some picturesque touches may be noted in passing, such as the indication of the beginning of spring, ‘when a (plane) leaf on the topmost bough is as large as a crow's foot-mark.’ Some prudential aphorisms are probably of immemorial age, and may be expected to outlast our race, such as that ‘every pickle maks a mickle’ (line 360), and ‘it's a poor thrift that spares the dregs’ (line 369) (cf. Plat. ‘Phaedo’), ‘at lovers' perjuries, they say, Jove laughs.’ The word νόμος is acquiring the sense which it afterwards obtained (‘Works and Days’ 386). Maxims are still simple, but contain more of the wisdom of life: ‘a good neighbour is a good thing’; ‘a bad wife roasts a man without the help of fire’; ‘fools grasp at pelf, knowing not that half is more than the whole, nor how much comfort there is in a dinner of herbs.’ The feeling of dependence on superhuman agencies is more constant in Hesiod than in Homer. But the intensifying of religious fear and even of superstition in Hesiod cannot be shown to be associated with any marked increase in the power of the priesthood.
2. One or two points of mythology may be touched upon in conclusion. The circumstances of the birth of Athena (l. 888) are different from what was later the orthodox tradition. Probably the more refined poets of a later age shrank from the naïve conception of Zeus swallowing his wife Metis at a gulp.
Demeter is as yet simply the goddess of harvest, apparently without mystic attributes, the consort of Zeus, and mother of Persephone and of Plutus. She is associated, however, with Zeus Chthonios, who is sometimes identified with Hades, but here and probably elsewhere is to be distinguished from him. The seventh day is sacred because it is the birthday of Apollo (l. 769). The fifth day is haunted by the Erinnyes (l. 801). In the ‘Theogony’ as it stands, there is no clear trace of an attempt to arrange the greater gods in groups of twelve or eight or three. It is manifest that in very early times the tract of territory afterwards occupied by Boeotia and Phocis had been the scene of many cross-currents of religious influence. Invaders from the north and north-west brought in the worship of the Muses and Graces, originally nature-deities, from Pieria to Helicon; of Dionysus from Thrace to Thebes and Delphi; of Ares from Thrace to Thebes; while the Phoenicians, entering from the seaboard, engrafted on some native worships the religion of Herakles at Thebes, and of Poseidon on Mount Onchestos, and had possibly established an earth-oracle at Delphi before the arrival there of Apollo or even of Dionysus. The strangely blended attributes of Poseidon, the earth-shaker, the lord of the deep, the bringer of the steed, are best accounted for by some contact with a Phoenician source. Whether or not Thebes is to be regarded as the centre from which this influence spread, its reality is unquestionable: the associations surrounding Cadmus, Europa, Melicertes, Aphrodite, Herakles, Daedalus, leave no room for doubt.
“With Hesiod begins the personal or subjective note, which is a new thing in literature, and sounds onward through the succeeding age of lyric and gnomic poetry.
The didactic form, which meets us as a new phenomenon in the ‘Works and Days,’ appears also in the body of elegiac verse which passes under the name of Theognis of Megara. It is certain that he belonged originally to Megara in central Greece, although Plato and others connected him, whether rightly or not, with the newer Megara in Sicily. These poems reflect the experience, not so much of another age, as of another class, who during the period of unsettlement on the Hellenic mainland had suffered the consequences of political reaction. In the neighbourhood of the isthmus, the old aristocracy were being supplanted, through the growing importance of industry and commerce, by new men whom they despised. Hence a mode of discontent, and of conscious misery, very different from that of the Boeotian peasant, but expressed in precepts into which ethical reflection enters in a somewhat similar way. The poets of the noblesse complain aloud that ‘money makes the man.’ While he glorifies justice as the sum of human excellence, Theognis identifies goodness with high birth, and badness with vulgarity. He commences his poem with an invocation of the Delian—not the Delphian—Apollo, of his sister Artemis, and of the Muses and Graces, who at the marriage of Cadmus had sung this strain: ‘what is beautiful is dear, what is unbeautiful is not beloved.’ He boasts of being famous in the world, but complains that he cannot please his neighbours. They are not without sense, but are led astray by the enemies of ‘the good,’ that is, of the men formerly in power. Those who once were poor men and despised now claim to be ‘the good.’ He longs in vain to find a comrade whom he can trust; such, a partisan is worth more than gold and silver. An open enemy is better than a dissembling friend. With such intermingling of political prejudice and moral wisdom, the poem proceeds, rising here and there into genuine religious fervour, and appeals to Zeus and to Apollo to protect the state from the insolence of upstarts and false friends. The poet has travelled far, but finds no country to please him like his own, not Sicily, not vine-clad Euboea, not Sparta amongst the reed-beds of Eurotas. But somewhat inconsistently he deprecates the spirit of faction, and though at the opening he worships the Delian Apollo, he specially reveres the sacredness of the Delphian oracle. He loves not war, but it is shameful not to fight for one's own state. Amongst many echoes of contemporary thought, this poet gives, perhaps the first clear utterance to the pessimistic strain, of which more will have to be said by and by: ‘best of all for creatures of earth not to be born, or see the sun's keen rays; but when born, it is best most swiftly to pass the gates of Hades, and to lie low with the mould heaped over one.’ ‘Hope alone of kindly powers remains with men, the rest have abandoned us, and gone to heaven. Good faith, a mighty deity, is gone, sobriety hath left mankind, and the Graces have deserted earth; oaths are no longer truly kept amongst men, and no one hath any reverence for the immortals. The race of pious men hath perished. They no longer recognise just ways or piety, yet while one lives and sees the light of day, let him show piety to the gods and wait on hope. Let him pray to heaven, and while he burns the splendid thigh-bones, let him sacrifice first and last of all to the goddess of hope.’
Theognis marks the transition towards the age of Solon, as darkness precedes the dawn. I have brought in the consideration of Theognis here, because, although somewhat later as a whole than the Hesiodic poetry, and more in line with the direct succession from Homer, this body of verse contains, probably with later interpolations, some unmistakable echoes of a distinct aspect of the period of unsettlement in central Hellas. Meanwhile, a different phase both of political and intellectual life had been developed in the islands of the Aegean and on the shores of Ionia, some part of which had contributed to the form rather than the spirit of the poems just described. The island centres had been exempt from the immediate influence of great changes to which the Hellenes of the continent on either side had been subjected in the seventh century. They had their quarrels amongst themselves, as one or another island, and one or another powerful individual, had predominated. But there appears to have been more scope than could be found elsewhere, either at this time or afterwards, for the prevalence of personal emotion and intensity of private social life. The lyric poetry which formed the bloom of this civilisation remains to us only in tantalising fragments, which suggest that the loss of such a literature is even more to be deplored than that of the comedies of Menander. But it may be questioned whether, if it had been extant as a whole, it could have been regarded as an important factor in the development of religion in the sense in which the term is understood for the purpose of the present volume. “We gather that the worships of Dionysus, Demeter, and Aphrodite were more vividly present to these people than that of the Olympian gods. Archilochus glories in the power with which he can improvise the dithyramb of royal Dionysus, when the wine is flashing through him. Sappho's invocation to Aphrodite is the most intense religious utterance of this individual and subjective poetry, and Anacreon similarly glorified the power of love. The most important in a literary sense, as well as the earliest, of these creative minds was undoubtedly Archilochus of Paros. In him the personal note above adverted to comes into sudden and startling prominence. His was a strong and turbulent spirit, that amidst many outward changes, during an adventurous life, found utterance for its intense passionateness and savage indignation; moved at one time by personal injuries, at another by sympathy with great misfortunes such as those of the Thasians. His apostrophe to his own spirit ‘confused with hopeless cares’ is more characteristic of him than the awe he felt at the eclipse, which suggested the familiar thought that nothing is to be accounted strange, not even if the course of nature should be interrupted or reversed. Yet the strain of moral reflection having a religious association is not absent. The decision of victory is with the gods, to whom all things are to be ascribed: ‘oftentimes when men are lying on the dark ground in misery they raise them up, and often when most prosperous, they overthrow them and lay them flat; thence many woes arise, and the man wanders in a life of want, and with thoughts disabled.’ ‘O father Zeus, thou rulest the sky, thou seest what is done whether villanous or righteous amongst men, thou carest for the insolence and right conduct even of the lower animals.’ His prayer to Hephaestus for such gifts as that deity is wont to give breaks off unluckily before we have learned its occasion or its object, whether this be skill in craftsmanship or the fiery destruction of his foes. Like other poets, he is ready to sing at religious ceremonies, and to lead up the Lesbian paean to the flute. As in all the poetry discussed in the present chapter, the religion of the Muses and of the Graces is a pervading spirit more consciously present than in Homer. The general impression derived from the fragments of lyric poetry of the seventh century is, that in the life of the islanders at this time, before the disastrous consequences of the Ionian revolt, individuals enjoyed a larger extent of social freedom than at any other period of Greek history. But the fear of the gods seems to have sat lightly on them, and the sunny vividness of their mental life can hardly be regarded as a positive moment in the evolution of religion. Yet we take note, in passing from them, of the general fact that in their hours of most intense consciousness and passionate emotion, the appeal to powers above themselves, Zeus, Apollo, Demeter, Dionysus, Aphrodite, Eros, breaks forth instinctively, as from a source of inexhaustible fulness from which they draw a momentary inspiration.
Among the inhabitants of the Asiatic seaboard, of which Miletus was the most important centre, amidst great varieties of social life and culture, there was far more of continuity in intellectual development. It was hereabout that the Homeric poems had attained their final shape, and it was here that elegiac poetry took its rise. Of this, so far as we know, Callinus was the earliest exponent. He lived in stirring days when the host of the Cimmerians was over-running Asia and threatening the Ionic seaboard. A fragment of his appeal to Zeus to spare the Smyrneans has been preserved, in which he ‘casts up to him’ the many fair thigh-bones of oxen that had been offered in burnt sacrifice. His elegiacs have an heroic ring. Mimnermus is a softer spirit, but he also has some warlike lines referring to the struggle with Lydia, in which Pallas Athena figures as the patroness of warriors. To speak more generally, in the Ionian poetry of this age we trace two principal effects: the love of pleasure, arising partly from the growth of luxury that was due to prosperity and the contagion of Lydia; and at the same time a pessimistic reaction, which may be ascribed partly to the sense of insecurity of a people dwelling at ease, but under the shadow, first of Lydian, and afterwards of Persian supremacy. The keenness of enjoyment passing over into regret for its transitoriness prompts reflection on ‘some undercurrent woe.’ Mimnermus singing in this minor key dwells at length upon the note lightly struck by Homer, in comparing human life to that of leaves, so anticipating the philosophy of change of which Heraclitus became the great exponent. Hecataeus and other chroniclers now sought to consolidate and arrange in prose writing historical and legendary tradition, while Pherecydes of Syros, also in prose, continued the effort of Hesiod by attempting a more consistent theogony and cosmogony. The Homeridae, at Chios and elsewhere, besides those additions to the Iliad and Odyssey which modern criticism has attributed to them, not only preserved the Homeric deposit, but individuals amongst them such as Lesches and Arctinus became the authors of new epics dealing with the various portions of the Trojan cycle, such as the ‘Cypria,’ the ‘return of the heroes,’ and the ‘lesser Iliad.’ The ‘Thebais‘and the ‘taking of Oechalia’ belonging to the same period were based on other legends brought from central Greece.
To the same line of tradition belongs the rise of a class of poems of uncertain and probably of various ages. The habit of invoking some great deity on the occasion of his festival, before reciting a selected portion of Homeric poetry, had become usual with the rhapsodists, whose preludes were sometimes of considerable length, and some of these have been preserved to us, under the name of the ‘Homeric Hymns.’ The present chapter may not unfitly be concluded with a brief reference to the most important of these.
The brightness of Ionian civilisation is pleasingly reflected in the ‘Hymn to Apollo.’ The birth at Delos is the principal subject, and the hymn itself was probably sung or recited at the Delian festival, which is in fact described in the well-known passage referred to by Thucydides. The exaltation of Delos as a sort of Bethlehem confessing her unworthiness at the unlooked-for annunciation is a prominent feature of the strain; another is the description of Apollo Citharoedus when he first appears in Olympus; and not less interesting, although more obscure, is the digression, perhaps interpolated, in which an attempt is made to connect the Delian with the Delphian Apollo, and at the same time to account for the comparative neglect of Telphussa as a seat of Apollonian worship. Edward Meyer has called attention to the comparative depreciation of Delphi, which he interprets as betraying a desire to exalt Delos at its expense, and supposes some connection with the rivalry of Athens with Sparta; but the description of the Delian festival is surely too early to admit of such a motive. The truth rather seems to be that the poet, or poets, belonged to the islands or to the Ionian seaboard and knew of Delphi only by report. Another proof of the absence of Delphian doctrine is that in the account of the slaying of the dragon, otherwise orthodox enough, there is no hint that Apollo needs any atonement for that act of bloodshed. The list of places visited by the god, both in Greece proper and in Asia Minor, beginning with Lycia, Maeonia, and Miletus, is unfortunately broken off by a lacuna in the text, else we might know more of the Delian amphictiony, whose importance survived Athenian ascendency. The effort of the poet, here as elsewhere, is to bring into harmony various local beliefs, not directly deducible from the general attributes of the god. The hymn has a touch of gentle pathos in the personal reference to the singer himself, so long identified with Homer in general tradition, ‘the blind old man of Scio's rocky isle.’ The golden sheen overspreading the isle in the day of her visitation may suggest a possible origin for the choice of Delos as the birthplace of a solar deity. Some pious soul, perhaps a pirate withal, may have seen some glory of sunrise on the rocky cliff and wondered. The remainder of the hymn, sometimes regarded as a wholly separate composition, besides the curious episode about Telphussa, contains a minute account of the god's first arrival at Delphi, with a wholly different legend about the birth of Typhon from that which we read in Hesiod, and a very singular myth about the origin of the Delphians founded on the combination of two fanciful derivations of Crisa from Crete, and of Delphinium from Delphis, a dolphin. These are preceded by the beautiful description of the first arrival of Apollo in Olympus, which forms the conclusion of the first and finest portion of the Hymn. ‘As swift as thought he goes from earth to Olympus to the home of Zeus to join the festive gathering of the gods. And straightway on his coming the Immortals are engaged with song and with the lyre, and all the Muses in a throng, alternating with their bright voices, hymn the immortal gifts of gods, and the miseries of men, which they suffer at the hands of the immortal gods, as they live without knowledge or device. Nor can they find a cure for death, or a bulwark against old age. But the Graces with fair locks, and the cheerful Hours, and Harmonia and Hebe and Aphrodite, daughter of the highest, join in the dance, each holding her fellow by the wrist. And there pre-eminent in beauty and in stature, the sister of Apollo brought up together with him, Artemis that showers her arrows, is conspicuous amongst that choir. There too with them are sporting Ares and clear-sighted Hermes, and Phoebus Apollo meanwhile plays the lyre amongst them, stepping loftily with a noble air. And about him shines bright radiance from his glancing feet and from his garment of immortal woof, while Latona of the golden locks and counsellor Zeus delight their divine souls with the spectacle, beholding their own son at play amongst the immortal gods.’
The ‘Hymn to Hermes,’ of uncertain date, continues the same serene and cheerful strain, passing over into mirth and humour. Hermes, of all the gods, is the most familiar comrade of mankind. He gives them unexpected wealth, and helps them in their enterprises, honest or dishonest, a very St. Nicolas to thieves; the average Greek mind obviously delighted in listening to the story of his tricksy ways. The hymn expatiates on his birth and infancy, which is marked by two great feats—his theft of the oxen of Apollo and his invention of the lyre. His brother Apollo is pacified for the first escapade, by the charm of the invention. This hymn supplies the firmest ground for the theory that would derive the name of Hermes from the Sanskrit, and identify his deity with the breeze of morning which drives away the cows of the sun, that is the clouds, that go before him, and makes them disappear, while the luminary laughs at his young brother's theft and listens gladly to the music of the dawn. But hearers of the hymn had no conception of the solar myth which is suggested by the comparison of Vedic hymns. The spirit of the whole performance has been admirably rendered for English readers by the kindred and sympathetic genius of Shelley. In another hymn addressed to Hestia, Hermes, probably as the god of boundaries, is associated with the goddess of the hearth.
The ‘Hymn to Demeter’ reflects a wholly different strain of feeling, inspired by a worship which as early at least as the sixth century had obtained a widespread importance on both sides of the Aegean. It was suggested in a former chapter that local village ceremonies and beliefs probably survived the most abrupt political changes, remaining as an undergrowth when the tall trees of the forest were felled; many instances in illustration of this remark may be quoted from Pausanias, and they are mostly connected with the worship of Demeter. Just as in the hymn before us she nurses the child of Celeus at Eleusis, so in the Sicyonic legend she is the nurse of Orthopolis, and it is significant that the cult of Demeter and Persephone is associated with that of the Eumenides and the Pates. The burden of the hymn, embodying the Eleusinian myth, is the blindness of mortals to their blessings, whereby they reject an offered immortality. The main theme is finely exemplified in the low relief discovered at Eleusis, representing Demeter and Persephone and between them the boy Triptolemus (or Zagreus), the child of Hades and Persephone. Persephone is carried off by Pluto and calls in vain on her mother, who hears of her loss from Hecate and from the Sun. Demeter then leaves Olympus, and is found by the daughters of Celeus sitting by the well, like an elderly woman in widow's weeds. She undertakes to nurse Demophoön, the son of Celeus and Metaneira, and would have made him immortal by putting him to rest amongst the embers of the hearth, had not his mother one night seen her doing this and not unnaturally taken alarm. The sorrow of the Great Goddess, in which earth sympathises, issuing in the destruction of the works of men; her joy in the restoration of her lost child, making earth to flourish again; the secret wile of Hades, giving Persephone the pomegranate seed which secured her return to the realms below, sustain the human interest of the poem. The promise of immortality, in a larger sense than that which the poet of the hymn could have conceived, has been drawn from the original in a well-known poem by the alchemy of which Tennyson was so great a master, reading modern thoughts into ancient forms of imagination. We shall have to refer again to this hymn in speaking of the mysteries at Eleusis. At present it is enough to say that it belongs to a time when the worship of Demeter at Eleusis had not yet been ‘contaminated’ with that of Dionysus.
Three hymns to Dionysus are included in the collection. Two of these are exceedingly short, one of them a mere fragment. In all of them he is the son of Zeus and Semele, and in the two brief hymns the mountain Nysa is mentioned as the place of his nurture. In the fragmentary hymn this is described as a lofty mountain, well-wooded, far from Phoenicia and near the stream of Nile. Thyône is also mentioned as another name for Semele. The longer hymn describes the first epiphany of the god. He is found by Tyrrhenian pirates on the seashore, like a beardless youth, with long dark hair. They bind him with withes, but he bursts them as Samson did; the pilot then proposes to leave him on the shore, but the captain will not hear of it. They begin their voyage, when suddenly wine flows in runnels about the ship, with poignant fragrance, and over the sail there sprouts a trailing vine, hung over with clusters.1 Dark ivy winds about the mast, with flowers and berries, and on the rowlocks wreaths are hung. The sailors turn towards shore, when the youth changes to a lion, and threatens them with roaring from the deck. A bear breaks out amidships, and sits up with threats. The sailors crowd in terror round the pilot, the lion seizes the captain, the mariners all leap into the sea and are changed into dolphins. The pilot alone is spared and made a wealthy man.
See the ship of Dionysus, on the well-known vase, reproduced in Frazer's Pausanias.