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- Athens: Its Rise and Fall, Book I. - 5/29 -

themselves of the shadowy thrones of the ancestral Earth and the primeval Heaven.

A third source of the Grecian, as of all mythologies, was in the worship of men who had actually existed, or been supposed to exist. For in this respect errors might creep into the calendar of heroes, as they did into the calendar of saints (the hero-worship of the moderns), which has canonized many names to which it is impossible to find the owners. This was probably the latest, but perhaps in after- times the most influential and popular addition to the aboriginal faith. The worship of dead men once established, it was natural to a people so habituated to incorporate and familiarize religious impressions--to imagine that even their primary gods, first formed from natural impressions (and, still more, those deities they had borrowed from stranger creeds)--should have walked the earth. And thus among the multitude in the philosophical ages, even the loftiest of the Olympian dwellers were vaguely supposed to have known humanity;--their immortality but the apotheosis of the benefactor or the hero.

X. The Pelasgi, then, had their native or aboriginal deities (differing in number and in attributes with each different tribe), and with them rests the foundation of the Greek mythology. They required no Egyptian wisdom to lead them to believe in superior powers. Nature was their primeval teacher. But as intercourse was opened with the East from the opposite Asia--with the North from the neighbouring Thrace, new deities were transplanted and old deities received additional attributes and distinctions, according as the fancy of the stranger found them assimilate to the divinities he had been accustomed to adore. It seems to me, that in Saturn we may trace the popular Phoenician deity--in the Thracian Mars, the fierce war-god of the North. But we can scarcely be too cautious how far we allow ourselves to be influenced by resemblance, however strong, between a Grecian and an alien deity. Such a resemblance may not only be formed by comparatively modern innovations, but may either be resolved to that general likeness which one polytheism will ever bear towards another, or arise from the adoption of new attributes and strange traditions;--so that the deity itself may be homesprung and indigenous, while bewildering the inquirer with considerable similitude to other gods, from whose believers the native worship merely received an epithet, a ceremony, a symbol, or a fable. And this necessity of caution is peculiarly borne out by the contradictions which each scholar enamoured of a system gives to the labours of the speculator who preceded him. What one research would discover to be Egyptian, another asserts to be Phoenician; a third brings from the North; a fourth from the Hebrews; and a fifth, with yet wilder imagination, from the far and then unpenetrated caves and woods of India. Accept common sense as our guide, and the contradictions are less irreconcilable--the mystery less obscure. In a deity essentially Greek, a Phoenician colonist may discover something familiar, and claim an ancestral god. He imparts to the native deity some Phoenician features--an Egyptian or an Asiatic succeeds him--discovers a similar likeness--introduces similar innovations. The lively Greek receives--amalgamates--appropriates all: but the aboriginal deity is not the less Greek. Each speculator may be equally right in establishing a partial resemblance, precisely because all speculators are wrong in asserting a perfect identity.

It follows as a corollary from the above reasonings, that the religion of Greece was much less uniform than is popularly imagined; 1st, because each separate state or canton had its own peculiar deity; 2dly, because, in the foreign communication of new gods, each stranger would especially import the deity that at home he had more especially adored. Hence to every state its tutelary god--the founder of its greatness, the guardian of its renown. Even in the petty and limited territory of Attica, each tribe, independent of the public worship, had its peculiar deities, honoured by peculiar rites.

The deity said to be introduced by Cecrops is Neith, or more properly Naith [28]--the goddess of Sais, in whom we are told to recognise the Athene, or Minerva of the Greeks. I pass over as palpably absurd any analogy of names by which the letters that compose the word Keith are inverted to the word Athene. The identity of the two goddesses must rest upon far stronger proof. But, in order to obtain this proof, we must know with some precision the nature and attributes of the divinity of Sais--a problem which no learning appears to me satisfactorily to have solved. It would be a strong, and, I think, a convincing argument, that Athene is of foreign origin, could we be certain that her attributes, so eminently intellectual, so thoroughly out of harmony with the barbarism of the early Greeks, were accorded to her at the commencement of her worship. But the remotest traditions (such as her contest with Neptune for the possession of the soil), if we take the more simple interpretation, seem to prove her to have been originally an agricultural deity, the creation of which would have been natural enough to the agricultural Pelasgi;--while her supposed invention of some of the simplest and most elementary arts are sufficiently congenial to the notions of an unpolished and infant era of society. Nor at a long subsequent period is there much resemblance between the formal and elderly goddess of Daedalian sculpture and the glorious and august Glaucopis of Homer--the maiden of celestial beauty as of unrivalled wisdom. I grant that the variety of her attributes renders it more than probable that Athene was greatly indebted, perhaps to the "Divine Intelligence," personified in the Egyptian Naith--perhaps also, as Herodotus asserts, to the warlike deity of Libya--nor less, it may be, to the Onca of the Phoenicians [29], from whom in learning certain of the arts, the Greeks might simultaneously learn the name and worship of the Phoenician deity, presiding over such inventions. Still an aboriginal deity was probably the nucleus, round which gradually gathered various and motley attributes. And certain it is, that as soon as the whole creation rose into distinct life, the stately and virgin goddess towers, aloof and alone, the most national, the most majestic of the Grecian deities--rising above all comparison with those who may have assisted to decorate and robe her, embodying in a single form the very genius, multiform, yet individual as it was, of the Grecian people--and becoming among all the deities of the heathen heaven what the Athens she protected became upon the earth.

XI. It may be said of the Greeks, that there never was a people who so completely nationalized all that they borrowed from a foreign source. And whatever, whether in a remoter or more recent age, it might have appropriated from the creed of Isis and Osiris, one cause alone would have sufficed to efface from the Grecian the peculiar character of the Egyptian mythology.

The religion of Egypt, as a science, was symbolical--it denoted elementary principles of philosophy; its gods were enigmas. It has been asserted (on very insufficient data) that in the earliest ages of the world, one god, of whom the sun was either the emblem or the actual object of worship, was adored universally throughout the East, and that polytheism was created by personifying the properties and attributes of the single deity: "there being one God," says Aristotle, finely, "called by many names, from the various effects which his various power produces." [30] But I am far from believing that a symbolical religion is ever the earliest author of polytheism; for a symbolical religion belongs to a later period of civilization, when some men are set apart in indolence to cultivate their imagination, in order to beguile or to instruct the reason of the rest. Priests are the first philosophers--a symbolical religion the first philosophy. But faith precedes philosophy. I doubt not, therefore, that polytheism existed in the East before that age when the priests of Chaldea and of Egypt invested it with a sublimer character by summoning to the aid of invention a wild and speculative wisdom--by representing under corporeal tokens the revolutions of the earth, the seasons, and the stars, and creating new (or more probably adapting old and sensual) superstitions, as the grosser and more external types of a philosophical creed [31]. But a symbolical worship--the creation of a separate and established order of priests--never is, and never can be, the religion professed, loved, and guarded by a people. The multitude demand something positive and real for their belief--they cannot worship a delusion--their reverence would be benumbed on the instant if they could be made to comprehend that the god to whom they sacrificed was no actual power able to effect evil and good, but the type of a particular season of the year, or an unwholesome principle in the air. Hence, in the Egyptian religion, there was one creed for the vulgar and another for the priests. Again, to invent and to perpetuate a symbolical religion (which is, in fact, an hereditary school of metaphysics) requires men set apart for the purpose, whose leisure tempts them to invention, whose interest prompts them to imposture. A symbolical religion is a proof of a certain refinement in civilization--the refinement of sages in the midst of a subservient people; and it absorbs to itself those meditative and imaginative minds which, did it not exist, would be devoted to philosophy. Now, even allowing full belief to the legends which bring the Egyptian colonists into Greece, it is probable that few among them were acquainted with the secrets of the symbolical mythology they introduced. Nor, if they were so, is it likely that they would have communicated to a strange and a barbarous population the profound and latent mysteries shrouded from the great majority of Egyptians themselves. Thus, whatever the Egyptian colonizers might have imported of a typical religion, the abstruser meaning would become, either at once or gradually, lost. Nor can we--until the recent age of sophists and refiners--clearly ascertain any period in which did not exist the indelible distinction between the Grecian and Egyptian mythology: viz.--that the first was actual, real, corporeal, household; the second vague, shadowy, and symbolical. This might not have been the case had there been established in the Grecian, as in the Egyptian cities, distinct and separate colleges of priests, having in their own hands the sole care of the religion, and forming a privileged and exclusive body of the state. But among the Greeks (and this should be constantly borne in mind) there never was, at any known historical period, a distinct caste of priests [32]. We may perceive, indeed, that the early colonizers commenced with approaches to that principle, but it was not prosecuted farther. There were sacred families in Athens from which certain priesthoods were to be filled-- but even these personages were not otherwise distinguished; they performed all the usual offices of a citizen, and were not united together by any exclusiveness of privilege or spirit of party. Among the Egyptian adventurers there were probably none fitted by previous education for the sacred office; and the chief who had obtained the dominion might entertain no irresistible affection for a caste which in his own land he had seen dictating to the monarch and interfering with the government. [33]

Thus, among the early Greeks, we find the chiefs themselves were contented to offer the sacrifice and utter the prayer; and though there were indeed appointed and special priests, they held no imperious or commanding authority. The Areopagus at Athens had the care of religion, but the Areopagites were not priests. This absence of a priestly caste had considerable effect upon the flexile and familiar nature of the Grecian creed, because there were none professionally interested in guarding the purity of the religion, in preserving to what it had borrowed, symbolical allusions, and in forbidding the admixture of new gods and heterogeneous creeds. The more popular a religion, the more it seeks corporeal representations, and avoids the dim and frigid shadows of a metaphysical belief. [34]

The romantic fables connected with the Grecian mythology were, some home-sprung, some relating to native heroes, and incorporating native legends, but they were also, in great measure, literal interpretations

Athens: Its Rise and Fall, Book I. - 5/29

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