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Religion in Greek Literature

1894 to 1896
University of St. Andrews

“The deepest want of our age is to have a new definition of God,” could summarize Lewis Campbell’s Religion in Greek Literature. In this comprehensive overview of Greek religion (antecedents, heroes, mysteries, scepticism, consecration of art, religion in texts such as the Iliad and the Odyssey as well as an examination of its chronological development), Campbell argues that rather to deny our Hellenic inheritance, it “should rather stimulate us to look back upon the times from whence it came down.” The author is convinced that in the Hellenic spirit one can discern a supreme power that redresses wrongs and a yearning after religious purity.

In this text Campbell focuses his attention on the way ritual and mythology reacted upon “the higher minds in Hellas.” His aim is to trace not so much the origins but tendencies, how and in what direction religious consciousness in Greece was moving. Campbell acknowledges the difficulty of the endeavour as unlike Judaism with its emphasis on religious identity and retention, there was a comparatively slight predominance obtained in Hellas by a priesthood that was local and unorganized. 

The foundation of the book can be found in chapters two to five. Here Campbell develops the antecedents of prehistory Hellas up to the theology of Homer. The tribes who lived about the shores of the Aegean were at the same stage of culture, social relations between families and tribes were in formation and “nor can there have been absent some recognition of the sacredness of elementals powers.” Homer’s theology was considerably advanced beyond the simple personification of earth, sea, woods, rivers, light and darkness. Each of the various gods has now been invested with a distinctly human character. In the Iliad, the Olympian Gods partly leave their local origins and become organized into a Homeric trinity, Apollo, Zeus, Athena. This in turn developed into Apollo who appeared as Helios the all-seeing or as Hyperion, the father of the sun. Campbell feels it is in Homer’s works that theology becomes serious; human destiny is a divine irreversible fact. The many rules of life which although not formulated were universally held sacred.

The middle section of Campbell’s work, chapters VI-XII, can be termed periods of transition, with long periods of insecurity, forced migrations, and the gradual supplanting of Sparta and Athens. But as the poetry of “Theognis marks the transition towards the age of Solon, as darkness precedes the dawn,” advances were made. The author notes that towards the end of the 7th century codes of law were prepared. Worship gave expression to the growing sense of common civic life. And in connection with the process of consolidation, architecture and sculpture attained “such magnificence in their associations with religious functions.” The safety and glory of the community were indissolubly associated with the present favour of the gods and heroes whom their fathers worshipped. After the victory of Thermopylae, where Athens gained enormously, Hellenios, the title of Zeus henceforth acquired a new meaning: it now extended to all Greek speaking lands. Hellenios became a great moral support to the cause of national liberty.

The last chapters XIII to XVI celebrate a new emergence, that of philosophy. “The flower of the old mythology could not but fade, for it was a child of the twilight, and too fragile to endure the full light of awakening reflection.” In this section Campbell analyzes the rise of Pericles and the influence of the Ionian School. “The full stream of Ionian culture was poured upon sensitive minds with the result of an enlightenment resembling the Aufklärung which preceded the French Revolution.” With this emergent rationality came the claim that the gods, if they existed, must make for righteousness. If not, “the tyranny of iniquity proves there is no God.” For Campbell, religion in Greek literature finds it culminating point in Plato.

In conclusion, Campbell feels Greek civilisation has been dealt unfairly both by the assailants and apologist of Christianity. He argues St Paul uses language which Plutarch would have recognized; other Apostles used rhetorical devices used by Onomacritus. Most importantly, the author feels much in the New Testament is better understood in light of the development of Greek religious thought. One needs to look upon Greek mythology as a natural and inevitable growth. One commits an error in comparing the perfection of one religion with the corruption of another. “If the conduct of an ordinary Athenian of the time of Aristides were compared with that of an average Hebrew of the time of Ezekiel, or of a Portuguese of the upper classes in the present day, I have a strong conviction that the comparison would not be to the advantage either of the Hebrew or of the Christian.” For Lewis Campbell, the development of spiritual and moral conceptions of both Hebrew and Greek have so much in common. “It is welcome evidence of our belief that mankind are not deserted by their Creator, but are drawn continually upwards, in the course of a divine education.”

  • David Kahan, University of Glasgow