The Gods in Greece

IT has become a commonplace that much that is beautiful, enlightening, and progressive in our modern civilization is an inheritance from the ancient world, — a rich inheritance brilliantly transmuted into something new and strange. Perhaps not all of us would admit as strictly true the assertion of Sir Henry Maine that, “ except the forces of nature, nothing moves in the world which is not Greek in origin,” but we can hardly deny that many of the best influences at work among us are Hellenic, and that it is important we should duly recognize and appreciate them ; for it is chiefly as they are intelligently apprehended that they become most potent and helpful.

Many essays in appreciation have been attempted in these days, and the field of Greek religious thought and sentiment has not been overlooked. The extraordinary proposition once maintained, that the Greeks, whose distinctive share in the discipline of humanity has been “ the education of the reason and of the taste,” were not a religious people in any true sense of the word, and that they made no permanent contributions to the progress of religion in general, no longer finds advocates among men of intelligence. It is now seen to be an absurdity to insist that the marvelous development of literature, art, science, philosophy, achieved by the Greeks — a race upon whom as upon no other nature had imprinted the need of harmonious and symmetrical growth — was attended by an atrophy or disintegration of the religious sense, and that in consequence we have nothing to learn from their religion, although their every utterance, whether in words or in works, upon all other matters is universally felt to be at once authoritative and instructive.

“A man’s religion,” Mr. Carlyle has said, “ is the most important thing about him,” and the remark is true of a race as well. The Greek pantheon was peopled with ideals; for this is the meaning of Aristotle’s saying that the Greeks made the gods in their own image. Hence would one at all understand the Greeks and their part in human history he must know their gods. Christianity herself is nowadays admitting that she has much to learn — if only the better to understand herself and many of the forces subtly active within her since the beginning — from the people who shaped her earliest and most momentous history. Indeed, one may truly say with Augustine that in Hellas is to be found no small part of that vera religio which, dimly existing without specific designation among ancient races, received the name of Christianity at last when Christ came.

It is, however, no easy matter to obtain the true view and the discriminating estimate of ancient Greek religious thought which alone are valuable. Two things prevent: first, our tendency to indulge in what Mr. Arnold used to call the " pathetic fallacy.” We are prone to conceive and to explain the ancient world — which, knit to us by many ties, is yet in many respects an alien world — in terms of modern thought; and thus it is not antiquity itself that we find in our researches, but our “ own phantom chanting hymns.” Then, too, the blindness of our self-constituted guides, due in part to a lack of genuine knowledge, in part to a prepossession by false conceptions, causes them and us to go astray. No one, unless he were intimately acquainted at first hand with both NormanFrench and English, would venture to speak with authority upon the characteristics of the former speech, nor on the relation of the two to each other; and yet many a person rushes in and delivers a cheap and ready judgment upon the religion of the ancients, although his knowledge of it is a matter of the shreds and tatters of other men’s learning. In these states of half knowledge which affect completeness, the student, forgetting that the scholar must often practice the virtue nescire aliquid, leaps at wild conclusions, and arrives at theories and explanations that are mutually inconsistent and destructive; and the warning voices, raised only too seldom, are unheard or pass unheeded.

The religion of the Greeks was made up of beliefs, hopes, emotions, conduct,— all with reference to the superior power or personalities on which they as moral beings felt themselves dependent. The beliefs were often fanciful and poetic, touching merely or mainly the imagination,— a dream-world of charming fiction, æsthetically pleasing or thrilling. Such in fact was the greater part of the mythology of the Greeks, of which one may safely say with Mr. Dyer1 that, though all religions are of the nature of poetry, the poetry of the people, this is the very poetry of the poets. In the remotest period these beliefs were of the simplest sort, inheritances from a preethnic time, and they gathered about some few rude tales or ceremonies, which appear to have suggested originally nature’s operations and man’s relations to nature. Soon these stories lost their primitive simplicity, and, though they retained their essential features, were, by the splendid mythopœic tendency of the Greeks, which was ever controlled by an unerring artistic instinct, often brilliantly transformed and transfigured. Others of these beliefs were of the nature of practical convictions as to man’s relation to the divine, moral in their influence; they searched the soul, shaped ideals, guided resolution,— the acknowledged though often unheeded arbiters of life. Between these two great classes of beliefs — that is, between the speculative creed and the dominating religious sentiment — there was at times no slight divergence. The mythology and the theology of the Greeks, and of other people as well, often are or seem to be immoral, as also the creed based upon them, while the religious sentiment is pure, elevating, and ethically stimulating. From the two indistinguishably confounded arises the vast nexus of cult and ritual, in which one may find side by side symbols and ceremonies of the profoundest meaning and those that strike him as foolish and trivial. In the progress of time all these elements act and react upon one another, and in particular, under the influence of an ethical consciousness that grows more and more enlightened, the cult and ritual become the bearers of new and momentous truths. The serious student of Greek religious thought is therefore interested less in the earliest literal meaning of myth and cult than in what these stood for and suggested, at this time and that, to the devout and the undevout Greek. Then, as now, to many the story or ceremony was merely a story or ceremony, a pretty poem or pageant, while to others it was a symbol and intimation of something larger and deeper. These differences in the content and significance of myth and ritual confront us not only at different stages in national development, but also in different persons and classes at the same stage. The Credo of the philosopher and of the superstitious peasant, identical in uttered form, how unlike in inner meaning! When we have ascertained the original sense of Greek myth, legend, and cult, we have by no means solved our problem, though we have gained many a useful clue. Quite as little do we understand Christendom of to-day in her noblest forms when we content ourselves with ascertaining the literal meaning that was put into her creeds by their original framers.

The nature of the problem undertaken by the student of Greek religion and the conditions of its successful solution will be made clearer if we suggest a comparison. The Greek language and Greek religion are both, as it were, institutions of society; each is of the nature of an expression, with its outward form and inner meaning. The Greek language, in its original elements, was an inheritance from an earlier period, received from a distant land : it was simple though flexible in structure, rich in substance, capable of splendid development. The people who spoke this tongue, anciently undivided, settled down in different parts of Hellas in detached masses which early entered upon independent careers. In due time, as they grew in knowledge and came into contact with new and manifold phenomena, there sprang up, at various points, marked dialectic differences, sharpest where the several cantons were most separated. In these new conditions the ancient inheritance was modified; old words and idioms took on new meanings, though retaining also the old ones. With the introduction of new conceptions from over the seas, conceptions often of wonderful power, there were adopted new words and turns of thought, wholly unHellenic, from foreign neighbors or visitors. This appropriation took place, at first, at some particular locality or localities, whence the new expressions gradually spread into adjacent districts. As time passed, this fresh material was so wrought into the ancient texture of speech as only faintly to suggest its foreign origin. Then, too, as intercommunication set in with greater vigor between the different cantons, it not infrequently happened that some ancient native word in a certain locality came to be used in the new and sometimes divergent senses that it had acquired in other parts of the motherland. When, finally, all the barriers were broken down, and literature had done her work, and the Hellenic people were fused into one, the language took on a Panhellenic character. A common dialect established itself, and was recognized as the proper speech of the cultivated, though still in many a faroff corner the simpler and racier idiom of the rustic folk continued to be heard with its naïvetés of sound and meaning, unaffected in all essentials by the normal or classic speech of the great centres of national life. And yet, from the earliest times to the latest, from one end of Hellas to the other, for the sage and for the peasant, it was ever the same speech ; but how momentous the differences, how vast the changes wrought within it!

Our figure indicates many of its own applications. Is not thought impossible without language ? some mistakenly ask. Then there would seem to be no such thing as religious feeling unless it were to find utterance in some form of religion. Language is a mighty instrument whereby thought is not only expressed, but also developed from feeble beginnings to magnificent issues. So religious feeling finds in enlightened creed and ceremony a fountain, as it were, for its own deeper spiritual growth. When alien races unite there often results, in the fusion of speech, a new language which far surpasses in power, vividness, and resourcefulness the earlier simpler tongues. Even so may two religions meet and mingle, and in the new form, as never before, sound and satisfy the depths of the human need of the divine. Ennius once said that he had three hearts, because he could speak Greek, Latin, and Oscan; and in Goethe’s assertion that he who knows but one language knows none lurks a suggestion of no small meaning. From our comparison we receive also an intimation that the methods of investigation for the study of a language and of a religion must resemble each other. The student of Greek religion is little concerned with mere theories as to the origin and early history of religions in general or of the Greek religion in particular, except as these may aid him in his historical inquiries. He begins with the local and the individual; undertakes as his first duty the collection and wise classification of all the phenomena as they reveal themselves, both originally and under development, at various local centres of influence. He notes all the formative agencies, whether at home or from abroad, at work in these local manifestations and in the larger development of national religion. He heeds the lesson to be learned from similar processes in the religious history of Cognate or even of alien races. He is interested more in the inner connotation than in the outward form, and in the latter only as it throws light upon the former, and is above all marked by openness of mind and an unswerving devotion to truth.

In Mr. Dyer’s The Gods in Greece the conditions imposed by the problem in hand have been admirably fulfilled. The spirit in which this attractive and suggestive book is written is always that of generous and sympathetic appreciation, and in the presentation of the subject the author has shown a happy and helpful sense of proportion and perspective. The truth that we have attempted to justify, that Greek religious thought is to be studied above all in its local manifestations and historically, has been heeded, and the available material has been explored with diligence and discretion. Greek religion left record of itself, often only implicitly and by intimation, in literature, in art, and in institutions, ancient and modern ; indeed, as Curt Wachsmuth has pointed out, — a writer whom Mr. Dyer might have quoted upon this point with startling effect,— it still survives, thinly disguised under Christian forms, in many of the usages and traditions of the Greeks of to-day. Making due use of these various sources of information, and under the inspiration imparted by a vision gained by visiting the ancient holy places, Mr. Dyer has been able to charm back into existence and to render more intelligible to the modern reader not a few of the gracious and impressive figures that haunted the sublimest dreams and kindled the highest hopes of the vanished ancient, world.

After an introduction, in which, with delicate insight, the essential features of Greek religion are sketched and hints thrown out as to the place this religion holds in history, the author speaks of Apollo at Delphi, “ the highest and really most supreme divinity in that poetry of poetry, Greek religion.”He next considers Demeter and Persephone, the two great goddesses of Eleusis. Then Dionysus is studied in his earliest and latest history, in Thrace, in Icaria, in Attica, and in the culmination of his splendid cult at Athens. Before speaking of Æsculapius as worshiped at Epidaurus and Athens, and as revealed in the discoveries made in these places, Mr. Dyer describes with rare beauty and vividness the common worship of Demeter and Dionysus as carried on at Eleusis, in part within the sacred precincts only lately uncovered to view. After an account of Æsculapius and his cult, in which is traced the history of the two ancient streams of medical theory and practice in Greece, there comes a study of Aphrodite at Paphos. In the eighth and last lecture Apollo at Delos is considered.

Scattered throughout the book are tea appendices, besides innumerable footnotes, to which are consigned many matters of curious and of explanatory lore. In an eleventh appendix is given a long and useful list of photographs, many of which were used by Mr. Dyer in illustrating his lectures, and all of which may be obtained. These photographs are mainly of Greek sites, and were taken in part by Mr. Dyer and the late Mr. Malcolm Macmillan, and in part by Mr. Walter Leaf. There are, finally, ample and excellent indexes.

The task undertaken in the lectures was a vast one, encompassed with grave difficulties. It is therefore not altogether surprising that, with Mr. Dyer’s subtlety, brilliancy, and exuberance of thought and style, and notwithstanding a strongly developed pictorial sense, his book should be hard reading. He is at his best in the glimpses given of natural scenery, and in his accounts and estimates of literary works. In the analysis and disentanglement — alike from the points of view of religious psychology and of historical development — of the various elements that entered into the myths and legends discussed he has shown great lucidity. Especially successful from this standpoint are the chapters on Dionysus and on the gods at Eleusis. Now and then the reader comes across sentences which either for aptness and charm or for paradoxical truth cling to the memory. Such, among others that we have noted at random in the first few pages, are : “ That old-time worship of ideals, by some miscalled idolatry.” “Judge Greek religion not by all its moods, but by all its highest and most characteristic ones.” “ The religion of Greece . . . may be compared to a wayward prayer poetically prayed, according to the whimseys of many daring flights of devotional ecstasy.” “ Greece, the common and inalienable fatherland of generous souls.” “ The most profitable state of mind for one who would learn about Greek religion treats each god and goddess in turn as if he or she alone existed, and at the same time always bears in vivid mind the history and attributes of all and several of the other gods.” “The Greek religion of polytheism was more monotheistic than theism itself, for the Greeks were not content with one only God Almighty and Supreme ; they had and they worshiped many such.” This last sentence suggests the remark that it is very difficult for us who are familiar, by tradition and education, with the contrast between monotheism and polytheism to understand how, in the mind of the Greeks, the diversity of persons and the unity of divine power could have coexisted.

Valuable though this beautiful book is as a contribution to popular knowledge, and helpful as it must prove in securing a delicate appreciation of the interesting part which the divinities considered in it played in the thoughts and lives of the ancient Greeks, it by no means speaks the last word upon the subject. Indeed, there are no last words, and there can be none. Even after all the facts have been gathered in, as we fancy, and all the possible inferences have been wisely drawn, each new generation of men wins, in ways as unaccountable as are nature’s changes, new points of vantage and of view with broader outlook, where the earlier vision is seen to be imperfect if not false. As knowledge increases, the scholar finds that his own work and that of his predecessors have become outworn, and that his task is never done. The old problems require new solutions for each new epoch. “ If Greek literature is not to pass away, it seems to be necessary that in every age some one who has drunk deeply from the original fountain should renew the love of it in the world, and once more present that old life, with its great ideas and great actions, its creations in politics and in art, like the distant remembrance of youth, before the delighted eyes of mankind.” What Professor Jowett here says of literature, which must always be the chief concernment of the classical scholar, holds true with equal force of all the other media whereby we may approach nearer the manifold life of the ancients. It is only as this truth is constantly borne in mind, as we draw again and again from the fountain-heads of knowledge and light, that the study of antiquity in all its most significant manifestations can continue to be at once fruitful and fructifying.

  1. Studies of the Gods in Greece at Certain Sanctuaries Recently Excavated. Being eight Lectures given in 1890 at the Lowell Institute. By LOUIS DYER, B. A. Oxon., late Assistant Professor in Harvard University. London and New York: Macmillan & Co. 1891.