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Chapter 9: Effects of the Persian War on Greek Religion — Transition Towards the Athenian Period

KEEN interest is from many causes at present concentrated on the origins of Hellenic life and culture, and the subject, however baffling, is a fascinating one. But a still more potent fascination, were it not apt to pall on us through familiarity, attends the culminating moment when a nation is, as it were, reborn, when events have roused the people to a new consciousness of growing powers yet unexhausted, when timely success has awakened in them a wholesome collective pride, and life appears more than heretofore worth living. Such a time in English history is the moment of the repulse of the Spanish Armada. That, more than any single event or series of events, gave to the English people their proud consciousness of high destinies and worldwide aims, and endued with tenfold life and force their every act of thought and imagination. The victories of Marathon and Salamis, Plataea and Mycale, (nor should Himera be left out of view,) had a similar effect in Hellas. And the parallel deserves attention in another way. We have lately heard the story of the Armada from the Spanish side, and know more fully than we did how many causes worked together with British patriotism, courage, and seamanship to bring about that overthrow. But those who felt the joy and exultation of the deliverance knew nothing of this; they knew only that the big black cloud which threatened England had been rolled away, and they acknowledged with grateful pride the daring defence of Howard, Drake, and Frobisher, and their brave seamen, and the protecting hand of God over their land. A speaker in Thucydides, two generations after Salamis, is made to say that the Mede failed chiefly through his own errors. But that could not have been the thought of the Athenian or Aeginetan who took part in the battle. To him it appeared that the deliverance was due to Zeus who sent the storms on Artemisium, to Boreas, son-in-law of Erechtheus, who there put forth his might, to Poseidon, who inspired the sea monsters around Mount Athos, but above all, to Hellenic bravery aided by Athena and by the sons of Aeacus, who came in their Aeginetan ship at the crisis of the battle. This is an example of the contradiction referred to above (p. 20) between the actual historic circumstances of great events and the imaginative ideals which they have awakened.

If the Persian power was a force entangling itself with strength, there were great faults also on the Hellenic side. The selfish pride and blind procrastination of the Spartan rulers, the treacherous venality of many leading men, the ignominious end of Miltiades, the double-dealing of Themistocles, the vacillation of Eurybiades, the breakdown of king Pausanias after Plataea, are familiar instances. Old sores were ready to burst forth afresh the moment pressure was removed. Yet all defects are swallowed up in the brilliance of the achievement itself, and the spirit shining through it of a free people and an indomitable race. All else is covered by the glorious rush at Marathon, the radiance of battle-martyrdom at Thermopylae, and the splendour of the victory at Salamis.

A single remark conveys much of the religious feeling of the Greek at such a time. ‘Why are they combing their hair so carefully?’ asked a Persian of a Greek in the army of Xerxes. ‘It is their way of preparing themselves for death,’ was the reply.

The name Hellenios as a title of Zeus from henceforth acquired a new meaning. It dated from the time when the chief god of the Achaeans was worshipped under this title by the inhabitants of the small mountain region of Hellas, whether in Thessaly or Thesprotia, and it was specially appropriated to the father of Aeacus as worshipped in Aegina. But when the name Hellenic had been extended to all Greek speaking lands, Zeus Hellenios obtained a new significance, and the importance of the attribute, as symbolical of one race, or it may almost be said, of one nation, became indefinitely intensified after the repulse of the Persian invasion. Indeed unless Herodotus and Aeschylus are reading the present into the past, the sanction of the Hellenic gods, that is, of objects of worship held sacred alike by all Hellenes, was felt in the midst of the struggle, as a great moral support to the cause of national liberty. However this may be, the effect of those great victories was manifestly to emphasise the growing sense of unity and of common interests that found expression in common worships and beliefs. The particularism of separate communities still remained only too potent a factor, and this was no doubt strengthened by the localisation of various worships and traditions; but the higher minds in Hellas could never forget that by a great united effort, with the help of the Hellenic gods, the temples, the tombs, and the living families throughout the mainland of Greece had been rescued from slavery. It is true that the Delphic oracle had given an uncertain sound, and that the acknowledged leaders of the Hellenes, namely the Spartans, although they behaved heroically at Thermopylae, and fought nobly at Plataea, had been behindhand in supporting the Athenians at Marathon, and, if Herodotus may be trusted, had given only a hesitating support at Salamis. But the prestige which has been won through generations is not soon cast aside; and the Spartan leadership, by land at least, was not thus lost, nor did the Delphian Apollo lose his influence; things had ended well, and the gods must have had a hand in the affair. But if Sparta did not lose, Athens gained enormously, and the triumphs of the Greek genius throughout the remainder of the fifth century, as these are now preserved to us, are mainly hers. She is the centre towards which the several streams converge. Could she but have continued the line of policy on which she was launched, under the guidance of Aristides and the Areopagus, while still fresh from the encounter with Persia, her subsequent history would not have so glaringly contradicted the aspirations of her noblest sons. It is in the time of rapid growth immediately succeeding the war, that the ideas of freedom, justice, equity, beneficence, acquire a meaning hitherto unfelt. And while the worship of all the greater gods is anxiously maintained, speculation becomes more active as to their true nature:—the most thoughtful minds, while scrupulously attending to religious duties, begin to form conceptions of divine action, independent of particular rituals, and tending to pantheism or even monotheism. Their vision of the world had been enlarged, and they were ready to listen to the poet or historian who spoke of the barbarians equally with the Greeks as under the dominion of Zeus; or of Apollo as equally present at Delphi, Delos, Xanthus, Miletus or Sparta. Although Hellenic unity was sadly broken, and may indeed be said never to have been realised, yet from this time forth the pan-Hellenic idea became a powerfully recurrent motive, until under the dominion of Alexander, as it were to avenge the Persian inroad, Hellenic arms were carried beyond the Indus, and left, there also, an imperishable record.

But it was in other fields than those of military conquest that the greatest triumphs of the Hellenic genius were to be won.

In the earliest times not only had each tribe and township its own divinities, but those whom all Hellas worshipped were imagined as dwelling in different shrines under different titles and attributes, and approached with special peculiarities of ritual. We have already seen the effect of the great festivals in drawing diverse communities together. But now the rising consciousness of a common national life gave new emphasis to the worships in which all shared, and even led to their borrowing from one another. Zeus the Saviour had previously been revered in many temples and at many altars—as the special protector of Dodona, of Argos, or of Corinth; but now he began to be regarded as the saviour not of each particular city but of all Hellenes, and the Samians appeal to Spartan aid in the name of the common divinities of Hellas. The Eleusinian worship of Demeter had in earlier days been a particular tribal cult, in which probably only certain families had cared to join; but after Marathon, initiation in the mysteries became general at Athens, and frequent amongst other Greeks. Apollo's shrine at Delphi could hardly he said to gain in authority from the invasion; but the god had miraculously vindicated his own treasure-house by rolling down rocks on the invader:—were not the boulders visible ‘unto this day’?—and it was piously believed that although his warnings were neglected he had adopted the cause of Hellas for his own. Delos, his birthplace, the rallying point of the Ionian name, had been respected even by the Persian enemy. Poseidon, whom the Corinthians worshipped, had destroyed the ships at Athos and Artemisium; and did not Pan strike terror into the Persian host at Marathon, as he declared in person to the runner Pheidippides? Herakles had looked down from Oeta upon the heroic action at Thermopylae; and the descendants of Aeacus, and above all Aias the son of Telamon, had actually taken part in the Salaminian conflict, the last named hero protecting his own island, Salamis. Athena had been personally interested in the struggle; she had shouted her exhortation to those Greeks who were backing out of the fight. Her sacred olive-plant, when the Medes had burned it, was believed to have at once put forth a new shoot a cubit long, although the serpent (in sympathy with the Delphian oracle) had slunk away at the approach of Xerxes. These are symptoms of the deepening and widening religious feelings that were prompted by the repulse of the Persian invasion. For the Athenians at least, the sacredness of home and family life must have been greatly intensified. Their wives and children had been saved by the ships and by Salamis, but their homes had been devastated, their fields ravaged, and what must have been their feelings in revisiting them? With what deep gladness must they have resumed the broken thread of family life, revisited their homesteads in the various demes, and lighted again the sacred fire upon the central hearth from the embers which the priest of Erechtheus had religiously preserved! With what joy and gratitude mingled with awe must they have celebrated the first Dionysia, Thargelia, Panathenaea, Apaturia, in the following year; and with what mystic exultation must the crowd of votaries on the Sacred Way have seen the cloud of dust rising from beneath their feet,—no vision as in the day of Salamis, but a blessed reality! It was by reminding them of their homes that Themistocles allayed their ardour, when they were madly bent on pursuing Xerxes to the Hellespont.

Such considerations may partly help us to understand how the arts which were already blossoming now burgeoned into richer life, and dressed themselves in forms of endless beauty and significance. The temple of Athena on the Acropolis, which the Persians destroyed, had many glories both of architecture and of statuary. Some of the statues have recently been recovered, and they are most interesting, giving strange promise of the power to make marble live and breathe, which came afterwards to such inimitable perfection. Yet, had it not been for the great deliverance, for the universal or at least pan-Hellenic thoughts which it awakened,—perhaps we should add but for the pride of Athens as the head of the Delian confederacy,—that art might have been arrested in its growth, might have become the instrument of tyranny or of priestcraft, or at least have stiffened into conventionalism. A certain rigidity belonging to the earlier style is traceable even in the Aeginetan marbles, although these are probably subsequent to the Persian war. The strong emancipating influence was only beginning. When Pheidias moulded the great Pallas of the Acropolis, or the Zeus whom all Hellenic tribes should worship at Olympia, what far-reaching conceptions must have inspired him! Or when Ageladas made the Winged Victory that surmounted the pediment of the great temple there, what power to soar was given to her, or to her prototype, by the thought of Salamis!

Historic circumstance combined with Hellenic genius to emancipate art from literalism. An eastern or southern potentate in his hour of triumph would command the royal artist to perpetuate the monarch's features, and to represent him in his habit as he lived—perhaps in the act of conquering with his spear and with his bow the enemy who became his captive. Thus the countenance of a Rameses or a Sennacherib is better known to after ages than those of Miltiades, Leonidas or Pausanias. The Greek feeling of Nemesis co-operated in this regard with artistic idealism. No human individual was permitted to claim the credit of the great deliverance. The name of Pausanias inscribed by himself on the tripod dedicated to Apollo at Delphi in commemoration of Plataea was immediately struck out by the Spartans, and instead of it the names of the states which had joined in the overthrow of the barbarian were substituted. When he was afterwards convicted of corruption and treason, this act of his (though the epigram was by Simonides) was regarded as his first downward step. The names of the cities are still to be seen at Constantinople on the three-headed bronze serpent that supported the tripod. It was only after the loss of Hellenic independence that the figures of Macedonian kings were embroidered on the Peplos of Athena. When the Romans took Jerusalem, the triumphal procession carrying off the seven-branched candlestick was eternalised on the arch of Titus. That was not the Greek way of celebrating a great victory. The pride of country and of race, the uplifting of gratitude, the consciousness of a noble destiny, transfused themselves in ideal shapes in which the traditional types of deity and of semi-deity were heightened and beautified. Divine forms instead of becoming petrified were more intensely humanised. The Sun and Moon, the river-god Ilissus, no less than the lords of Olympus, sympathetically surrounded the new-born Athena as she looked forth from the eastern pediment of the Parthenon in the direction of Marathon; while on the western pediment, which looked down on Salamis, the primeval contest between the giver of the olive and the ruler of the sea reminded the Athenian of the divine protection under which he lived. The old legends, the old mythology, the old ritual, remained with clinging tenacity in the old traditional sites; old mythological types were carefully preserved, but a new spirit from thenceforth informed them. Two great works especially bore witness to such a tendency, and both were attributed to Pheidias:—the colossal statue of Athena Promachus surmounting the Acropolis, said to be formed of bronze taken from the spoils of Persia, and the marble image of Nemesis at Rhamnus, in the neighbourhood of Marathon. This is one of those personifications of abstract ideas mentioned above (pp. 145, 146), It was anticipated indeed by the author of the ‘Cypria,’ who made Helen the daughter of Zeus and Nemesis. The Nemesis of Rhamnus had beheld the ruin of the Persians' pride. And according to a tale which is either true or well invented, her image was formed out of a block which Datis and Artaphernes had brought expressly from Paros in order to raise a trophy of their assured victory over the Athenians.

Of the poets who ‘flourished’ during the period of the Persian wars, I have already spoken of Pindar. Of Phrynichus and Aeschylus I shall have to speak hereafter in treating of Attic Tragedy. There remain Simonides of Ceos, and his nephew Bacchylides, now better known than heretofore, since Mr. Kenyon's publication of the well-known papyrus.

Simonides, though he exists for us only in fragments, is an important figure. He is a poet who writes ‘to one clear harp in divers tones.’ A native of Ceos, he lived much at Athens, but like other wandering bards was also to be found at the court of Syracusan ‘tyrants’ He had already reached celebrity at the time of the Persian war, 490–480 B.C., and many of the inscriptions celebrating the bravery of Greek leaders and warriors were either his or attributed already in antiquity to him. Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, in an ingenious paper, has sifted the original epigrams with their stern simplicity from the later accretions. Simonides is one of the gnomic poets, but also a lyric poet of great eminence. Of all poets of antiquity, perhaps, he presents the nearest analogy to Tennyson. The famous fragment about Danae and Perseus is unsurpassed for tenderness, while his poems in celebration of Marathon, Thermopylae, and Salamis have an heroic spirit in them, and the ring of absolute sincerity.

The following passages exemplify the strain of moral reflection characteristic of him:

‘'Tis said that virtue once dwelt on inaccessible rocks, but now she ranges the holy place of the gods, and meeteth not the eyes of mortal men, nor is seen by any, save by him who with heart-consuming toil hath poured out his sweat, and so hath mounted to a height of bravery.’

‘Men have little strength and thoughts that find no issue, and labour upon labour in a scanty lifetime, and over all alike there hangs inevitable death, whereof the noble and the mean obtain an equal share.’

In connection with the personifying of abstractions just alluded to, it is noticeable that he speaks of Tomorrow as a divinity (δαίμων).

The recently discovered poems of Bacchylides contain but little that contributes to our knowledge of Greek religion. The evidence they present of some early link between Ceos, Miletus, and Crete has been already noticed. The form of the Herakles legend which comes out most strongly in them is that which connects Herakles with Aetolia. The meeting of the divine hero, during his quest for Cerberus, with the ghost of Meleager is remarkably impressive, and the new light thrown on the story of Theseus is interesting in itself, and also as proving that the Athenian hero was already the centre of a living tradition. It is also most interesting to find that Croesus, as the servant of Apollo, had been already deified in poetic legend no less completely than Cadmus or Herakles. The two Cean poets reflect a period of Hellenic development in which Athens was rising in importance, while the ascendency of Sparta had not yet waned. And taken in conjunction with Pindar they mark a period in which the interest of all Hellenes, but especially of the great families, in their legendary past was at its height. The grandeur of heroic personalities and their achievements is more prominent in the productions of the Cean muse than any deepening of the conception of deity. It is a remarkable instance of independence in Bacchylides that in celebrating Alexidamas of Metapontuni, who had won the boys' prize for wrestling in the Pythian games, he should hint not obscurely that his young hero had been unfairly judged at Olympia.

In previous chapters dealing with Greek religious life as reflected in Greek literature, we found great variety, yet with remarkable similarities and an approach to unity, of which the Homeric poems on the one hand, and the odes of Pindar on the other, were at once the embodiment and the support. The Greek of the sixth century, in looking backwards, whether he were a native of Sicily or of Ionia, would have a sense of community in religion with other Greeks, which had no place in the thoughts of his remote ancestry. But this common basis, if it may be so described, had been disturbed by two causes whose operation was widespread. The experience of the race was outgrowing its traditions, and the more advanced minds were having recourse either to innovations in mythology and ritual, or to philosophical speculation.

Religious innovations were connected with a natural transition, assisted by some vague foreign influence—from polytheism to pantheism. The old worships held their own, and no attempt was made either to neglect or to supplant them; but the accompanying conceptions were losing their sharpness of outline: the attributes of the gods were generalised, and were becoming merged in mystic apprehensions of a divine nature pervading all things and encompassing human life both individual and national. In this movement, which went on side by side with the growth of hero-worship, two distinct tendencies are perceptible: (1) the attempt—anticipated to some extent in the Hesiodic poems—to introduce order into the chaos of mythology by an elaborate filiation of divine beings. In the sixth century, however, in accordance with the pantheistic drift, theogony was already passing into cosmogony. This aspect of early Greek thought or fancy is associated with the name of Pherecydes of Syros. At the same time (2) there was a deepening sense of human sinfulness, and fear of divine anger, possessing whole communities and prompting strange efforts after purification and atonement. The germs of this are of course already present in Homer, and still more in Hesiod, and are derivable from earlier sources. The plague at the beginning of the Iliad is sent by an offended deity, whose anger is averted for a time by sacrifice and by washing in the sea. But there is nothing specially piacular in the mode of sacrifice. Gifts are offered in the hope of appeasing wrath. And purification by sea water, or as in the Odyssey by the burning of sulphur, are simple and natural, ideas, belonging to an age whose spiritual wounds could be healed slightly, and in which physical and moral notions easily blended. The annual washing of the Palladium at Athens was a survival of this. In Hesiod, the fear of ceremonial pollution has an almost oriental cast, but is met by a few naïve precepts which ‘salve all.’ Towards the beginning of the sixth century, however, the trouble had deepened, and we find traditions of a time when spiritual evils were met by mystical expedients: when the guilt of blood incurred during the insurrection of Cylon at Athens could only be dissipated by the coming of Epimenides, the religious sage, from Crete, and the expulsion of the attainted family, even the dead members of it being cast out of their graves; when by the magic arts of the physician Apis, from whom according to Aeschylus the Peloponnesus was called the Apian land, the brood of monstrous serpent forms which through the anger of the gods had infested it were driven out—much as Ireland was cleared of reptiles by St. Patrick; and when, through the timely aid of Melampus, curing like with like, epidemics of hysterical frenzy amongst women were strangely cured by the organisation of orgiastic rites. In all this movement the spread of the Apolline worship from its chief centres at Delphi, Delos, and Miletus had an important influence which is difficult to trace in detail, and the instances last mentioned are closely connected with the rise of Dionysiac religion. Without attempting to follow this connection further, I must content myself with having so far indicated a phase of religious life which undoubtedly existed, and had an important bearing on what followed.

It is, true that these newer religious influences still took the form of ceremonial observances, not of doctrines clearly enunciated. There remained much darkness as to the principles of divine government, and the nature of those actions which were supposed to provoke the anger of the gods. That sense of the divinity of justice which appears in Hesiod, and to which Solon gave such noble expression, was but dimly apprehended even by the few. The distinction, so familiar to us, between positive and moral obligation was hardly felt. Yet in the fear of an offended deity and the effort to propitiate him there lay in embryo a real principle of spiritual life.

The beginnings of philosophy were still more isolated than the outcropping of these mystical yearnings, from which, indeed, they were not altogether dissociated; for in the cosmogony of Pherecydes and his school there was already a beginning of speculation on the riddle of the universe, and the philosophy of Pythagoras and even that of Parmenides had a mystical strain. These isolated philosophic utterances had hitherto been chiefly heard in Ionia and Magna Graecia. We have already found traces of their influence in Herodotus and in Pindar.

But in treating of the fifth century, the focus of interest in spiritual matters, as well as in political life, is transferred from the outlying parts of Hellas to Athens. The achievements of the Athenian people at Marathon, at Salamis, and generally inrepelling the Mede, and the defection of Sparta after the fall of king Pausanias, not only quickened all the seeds of mental growth in Attica, and greatly deepened the national consciousness there, but through the position of Athens as the head of the Delian confederacy and the new leader of Hellas against the barbarian, every stream of culture from Hellenic lands was made to flow her way. In the case of. Attica the question of the sources of religious life is peculiarly interesting, for in spite of the obscurity which envelops all beginnings, especially the beginnings of mythology, there are perhaps more traces in Attica than elsewhere of primitive worships. The country, as Thucydides says, had been so long inhabited by the same race, the separate districts had so long retained their own peculiar rites, being only gradually absorbed into the main community, that that not-very-fortunate man (as Plato calls him), the investigator of early mythology and of folklore, has more material for his industry in this quarter than can easily be found in the same space elsewhere, unless in Arcadia.

Our aim, however, will be to deal as far as possible with facts obtained at first hand, and to abstain from filling up with mere guesswork, however plausibly supported, the gaps of knowledge.

The Athenian of the fifth century truly felt that the Homeric poems were the education of the race. In creating out of innumerable local worships a universal Pantheon, in which Zeus, Athena, and Apollo predominated over the lesser gods, Homer seemed to have led the way to a conception of the divine nature in which all minor phases of religion tended to become absorbed. Yet while enlarging and elevating the Greek mind, these poems failed to satisfy the religious instinct chiefly in two ways: (1) The universality of Homeric religion owed its existence partly to the fact that the Achaeans of Asia Minor, in emigrating from Thessaly, had left behind them many customs of their ancestors. To the Athenian such old customs were still in living observance, intertwined with the essential life of his family, his tribe, his city. The heroes of his race and nation, whose graves he visited, whose succour in battle or in any stress of need he relied upon, to whom from childhood he had seen his parents offering sacrifice, had a reality for him, which, if less exalted, was more immediately inspiring than that of the Olympic gods. There were also, as above remarked, deep spiritual needs which had sprung up and grown in central Hellas after the close of the Homeric canon. The sense of sin and need of atonement, vague yearnings for religious sympathy, and above all, desires and aspirations towards the world beyond, had been awakened in various degrees in different minds, and found a transient satisfaction in the development of the Eleusinian mysteries and of the Dionysiac worship, which had taken root upon Athenian soil.

Through the wisdom of the legislator, these diverse needs had been met in the creation of the complex fabric of Athenian social life. By a law of Draco in the sixth century the worship of the local gods and heroes was to be maintained according to immemorial use and wont. The recitation of Homeric rhapsodies formed an essential part of the pan-Athenaic festival. The Eleusinia were acknowledged by the state, and obtained a firm hold on the Athenian spirit; and from the keen interest in the Dionysia, which not only Athens but her Ionian allies increasingly felt, came that unique creation of Greek Tragedy, which, while holding up the mirror alike to local legends and heroic memories, revealed so much of what lay deepest in the human soul.

The spirit of philosophic speculation which had arisen in Ionia before its overthrow, which had culminated in Magna Graecia, and had for a time been associated with political ascendency at Croton, had nothing to answer to it in the earlier life of Athens. It may be doubted whether before the time of Pericles it could have found a home there. Indirectly, it is true, great poets, such as Aeschylus and Simonides, may have reflected something of Pythagorean wisdom: a sort of glorified common sense expressed itself in the gnomic poetry of Solon; but a teacher such as Heraclitus, openly denouncing sacrifice, or Xenophanes, declaring the folly of anthropomorphism, could scarcely have been tolerated by the Athenians in the time of Cimon. When Ionia had finally come under the rule of tyrants who depended on Persia, and spirits that loved liberty were seeking a home elsewhere; when Sicily was also under despotic rulers, and Athens stood forth as the declared friend of freedom, then it was that the wise policy of Pericles brought Anaxagoras to Athens, and shortly afterwards such men as Gorgias and Protagoras came to visit her. It was a short breathing space, and precarious while it lasted, but it allowed room for that outburst of enlightenment, and for that new birth of time, to which the death of Socrates only gave fresh life,—a spiritual influence that is still active in the world.