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Posted February 6th, 2010 by webmaster









The sources of information most obviously open to scholars of ancient Greek religion are the Art and the Literature of ancient Greece; and the idea that modern Greece can have any teaching to convey regarding the beliefs of more than two thousand years ago, seems seldom to have been taken into account. Just as we speak of ancient Greek as a dead language, and too often forget that many of the words and inflexions currently in popular use , are identical with those of the classical period and even of the Homeric age, while many others, no longer identical, have undergone but small modifications, no longer identical, so are we tend to think of Greek paganism as a dead religion, and do not inquire whether the beliefs and customs of the modern peasant may not be a direct heritage from his classical forefathers. And yet, if any such heritage exist, there is clearly a fresh source of knowledge open to us, from which to supplement and to correct the lessons of Art and Literature.

    Art, by its very nature, serves rather as illustration than as proof of any theory of ancient religion. Sculpture  has preserved to us the old conceptions of the divine personalities. Vase-paintings record many acts of ritual and scenes of worship. Architectural remains allow us to restore in imagination the grandeur of holy places. But these things are only the external of religion. They need an interpreter, if we wish to understand the spirit which informed them: and however able the interpreter, the material with which he deals is so small a remnant of the treasures of ancient art that from day to day some fresh discovery may subvert his precariously founded theories. Though all would recognize how rewarding in religious suggestions the evidence of art has proved when handled by experienced critics, none would declare that that evidence either in its scope, which the losses of time have limited, or in its accuracy, which depends upon conjectural interpretation, is a complete or infallible guide to the knowledge of ancient religion.

    From literature more might be expected, and more indeed is forthcoming, though not perhaps  where the modern mind, with its tendency to analytical method, would look for it. If anyone should endeavour to classify ancient Greek literature in modern fashion, under the headings of religion, science, history, drama et cetera, he would remark one apparent deficiency. While history, philosophy and poetry of every kind are abundantly represented and, however much has perished to be read no more, the choicest blossoms and richest fruit of Greek toil in these fields have been preserved to us, religion seems at first sight to have been almost barren of literary produce.

    The branch of religion in itself would have little beyond an Hesiodic Theogony or some Orphic Hymns to exhibit – and even these have little enough bearing upon real religion. In short, it is not on any special department of Greek literature, but rather upon the whole bulk thereof , that the student of Greek religion must rely. He must recognize that a religious spirit pervades the whole; that there is hardly a book in the language but has some allusion to religious beliefs and customs, to cults ad ceremonies and divine personalities. And while recognizing this he must still admit the fact that nowhere is there found any definite exposition of accepted beliefs as a whole, any statement of doctrine, any creed which except a man believe he cannot be saved. How are we to reconcile these two acts – the constant presence of religion in all Greek literature, and the almost total absence of any literature appertaining to religion only? The answer to this question must be sought in the character of the religion itself

    Greek religion differed from the main religions existing now in the world on its origins and development. It had no founder. It was not sanctioned by the ipse dixit of some inspired teacher. It possessed nothing analogous to the Gospel of Jesus Christ r the Koran.

    It was a free, autochthonous development, evolved from the various hopes and fears of a whole people. If we could catch a glimpse of it in its infancy, we should probably deny to it the very name of religion and call it superstition or folklore. Great teachers indeed appeared, like Orpheus, promoting special doctrines ad imposing upon their followers special rules of life. Great centres of religious influence were developed, such as the one at Delphi, where general control over rites and ceremonies was exercised. But no single preacher, no priesthood succeeded in dominating over the free conscience of the people. Nothing  was imposed by authority. In belief and in worship each man was a law unto himself, and so far as there were any accepted doctrines and established observances, these were not  the subtle inventions of professional theologians or an interested priesthood, but were based upon the hereditary and innate convictions  of the whole Greek race. The individual was free to believe what he would and what he could; it was a general, if vague, consensus of the masses which constituted the real religion of Greece. The vox populi fully established itself as the vox dei.

    Again in this popular religion, when it had emerged from its earliest and crudest form and had reached the definitely anthropomorphic stage in which we know it, we can discern no trace of any tendency towards monotheism. The idea of a single supreme deity, personal or impersonal, appealed only to some of the greatest thinkers: the mass of the people remained frankly polytheistic. For this reason the development of Greek religion proceeded on very different lines from that of Hebrew religion. The earliest Jewish conception of a God ‘walking in the garden in the cool of the day’ was certainly no less anthropomorphic than the Homeric presentation of the Olympian deities: but the subsequent growth of Judaism was like that of some tall straight palm tree lifting its head to purer air than is breathed by men; whereas Greek religion resembled rather the cedar spreading wide its branches nearer the earth. The Jew, by concentrating in one unique being every transcendent quality and function, exalted gradually his idea of godhead far above the anthropomorphic plane: the Greek multiplied his gods to be the several incarnations of passions and powers and activities pertaining also, though in less fullness, to mankind.

    It is obvious that in point of simplicity and consistency the monotheistic system must prove superior. As the worshipper’s intellectual and spiritual capacities develop, he discards the older and cruder notions in favour of a more enlightened ideal. Abraham’s crude conception of the deity as a being to whom even human sacrifice would be acceptable was necessarily rejected by an humaner age to whom was delivered the message ‘I will have mercy and not sacrifice’.

    In the evolution of Greek polytheism, on the contrary, the new did not substitute the old, but was superimposed upon it. New conceptions were expressed by the creation or acceptance of new gods, but the venerable quintessence of more primitive beliefs were not necessarily supplanted by them. The development of humaner ideas in one cult was no bar to the retention of barbarous rites by another.

    The same deity under different titles of invocation (επωνυμίαι) was invested with different and even conflicting characters: and reversely the same religious idea found several expressions in the cults of widely different deities. The forms of worship, viewed in the mass,  were of an inconsistent and chaotic complexity. Human sacrifice, we may be sure, was a thing abhorrent to the majority of the cults of Zeus: yet Lycaean Zeus continued to demand his toll of human life down to the of Pausanias. The worship of Dionysus embodied something of the same religious spirit which pervaded the teachings of Orpheus and the mysteries of Demeter, and came to be so closely allied with them: yet neither the austerity of Orphism nor the real spirituality of the Eleusinian cult succeeded in mitigating the wild orgies of the Bacchant or in repressing the savage rite of omophagia in which drunken fanatics tore a bull to pieces with their teeth. Aphrodite was worshipped under two incompatible titles: in the role of the ‘Heavenly’  (ουρανία), says Artemidorus, she looks favourably upon marriage and childbirth and the home life, while under her title of ‘Popular’ (πάνδημος) she is hostile to the matron, and patroness of laxer ties. It is needless to multiply illustrations. The forms in which the religious spirit of Greece found embodiment are beyond question confused and mutually inconsistent. The same religious idea might e expressed in so great a variety of rites, and the same divine personality might be associated  with so great a variety pf ideas, that no formal exposition of Greek religion as a whole was possible.

    The verbal limitations of a creed, a summa theologiae, would have been too narrow for the free, imaginative faith of Greece. It was a necessary condition of Hellenic polytheism that, as it came into being without any personal founder, without any authoritative sacred books, so in its development it should be hampered and confined neither by priestcraft nor by any literature purely and distinctively religious. The spirit which manifested itself in a myriad forms of worship could not brook the restraint of any one form of words.

    And not only would it have been difficult to give adequate expression to the essential ideas of Greek religion, but there was no motive for attempting the task. Those of the philosophers who dealt with religion wrote and taught for the reason that they had some new idea, some fresh doctrine, to advance. Plato  certainly abounds in references to the popular beliefs of his age: but his object is not to explain them for their own sake: he rather employs them as illustration and ornament of his own philosophical view: his treatment of them in the main is artistic, not scientific. In fact there was no one interested in giving to popular beliefs an authoritative and dogmatic expression. There was no hierarchy concerned to arrest the free progress of thought or to chain men’s minds to the faith of their forefathers. 

    A synopsis pf popular doctrines, if it could have been written, would have had no readers, simply because the people felt their religion more truly and fully than the writer could express it: and few men have the interests pf posterity so largely at heart, as to write what their own contemporaries will certainly not read. Thus it seems that there was neither motive nor means for treating the popular religion in literary form: to formulate the common-folk’s creed, to analyse the common-folk’s religion,  was  thing neither desired nor feasible.

    But because we observe an almost total absence  of distinctively religious literature, we need not for that reason be surprised at the constant presence of religious feeling in all that a Greek wrote or sang. Rather it was consistent with that freedom and that absence of all control and circumscription which we have noted, that religion should pervade the whole life of the people, whose hearts were its native soil, and should consequently pervade also the literature in which their thoughts and doings are recorded. For religion with them was not a single and separate department of their civilisation, not an avocation from the ordinary pursuits  of men, bat rather a spirit with which work and holiday, gaiety and gloom, were alike penetrated.

    We should be misled by the modern devotion to dogma and definite formulae of faith, were we to think that so vague a religion as Greek polytheism was any the less an abiding force, any the less capable of inspiring genuine enthusiasm and reverence. It is not hard to imagine the worshipper animated for the time by one emotion only, his mind void of all else and flooded with the one idea incarnate in the divine being at whose altar he sat in supplication. It is impossible really to misdoubt the strength and the depth of Greek religious sentiment, however varied and even mutually contradictory its modes of display.

    A nation who peopled sky and earth and sea with godlike forms; who saw in every stream and glen and mountain-top its own haunting, hallowing presence, and, ill-content that nature alone should do them honour, sought out the loveliest hills and vales in al their lovely land to dedicate there the choicest of their art; who consecrated with lavish love bronze and marble, ivory and gold, all the best that wealth could win and skill adorn, in  honour of the beings that were above man yet always with him, majestic as Zeus, joyous as Dionysus, grave as Demeter, light as Aphrodite, yet all divine; such a nation, though it knew nought of inspired books and formulated creeds, can be convicted of no shortcoming in real piety and devotion.

    Their gods were near to those whom they favoured; no communion or intercourse was beyond hope of attainment; gods fought in men’s battles, guided men’s wanderings, dined at men’s boards, and took to themselves mortal consorts; and when men grew degenerate and the race of heroes was no more, gods still held speech with them in oracles. Religious hopes, religious fears, were the dominant motive of the people’s whole live. It was in religion that sculpture found its inspiration, and its highest achievements were in portraying deities. The theatre was a religious institution and on the stage, without detriment to reverence, figured the Eumenides themselves. Religious duties were excuse enough for Sparta to hang back from defending the freedom of Greece. Religious scruples set enlightened Athens in an uproar because a number of idols were decently mutilated. Religious fears cost her the loss of the proudest armament that even sailed from her shores. A charge of irreligion was pretext enough for condemning to death her noblest philosopher. In everything, great and small, the pouring of libations at the feat, the taking of omens before battle, the consulting of the Delphic oracle upon the most important or most trivial pf occasions, the same spirit is manifest. Religion used or abused, piety or superstition, was to the Greeks an abiding motive and influence in all the affairs of life.

    It is chiefly of these definite doings and customs hat literature tells us, just as art depicts the mis-en-scène of religion. Yet it would be unthinkable that a people who exhibited so strong and so abundant a religious sentiment in all the circumstances and tasks of life, should not have pondered over the essential underlying questions of all religion, the nature of the soul and the mystery of life and death. Literature tells us that to their poets and philosophers these problems did present themselves and many were the solutions which different thinkers propounded; but of the general sense of the people in this respect, of the fundamental beliefs which guided their conduct towards gods and men in this direct statement: its evidence is fragmentary, casual, sporadic. Everywhere it displays the externals, but it leaves the inner spirit veiled. Literature as well as art needs an interpreter.

    It is precisely in this task of interpretation that the

Assistance offered by the folklore of Modern Greece should be sought. It should be remembered  that there is still living a people who, as they have inherited the land and the language, may also have inherited the beliefs and customs, of those ancients whose mazes of religion are bewildering without a guide who knows them. Among the still living people it is possible not only to observe acts and usages but to enquire also their meaning: and though some customs will undoubtedly be found either to be mere survivals of which the significance has long been forgotten, or even to have been subjected to new and false interpretations, yet others, still rooted in and nourished by an intelligent belief, may be vital documents of ancient Greek life and thought.