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- Athens: Its Rise and Fall, Book I. - 6/29 -

of symbolical types and of metaphorical expressions, or erroneous perversions of words in other tongues. The craving desire to account for natural phenomena, common to mankind--the wish to appropriate to native heroes the wild tales of mariners and strangers natural to a vain and a curious people--the additions which every legend would receive in its progress from tribe to tribe--and the constant embellishments the most homely inventions would obtain from the competition of rival poets, rapidly served to swell and enrich these primary treasures of Grecian lore--to deduce a history from an allegory--to establish a creed in a romance. Thus the early mythology of Greece is to be properly considered in its simple and outward interpretations. The Greeks, as yet in their social infancy, regarded the legends of their faith as a child reads a fairy tale, credulous of all that is supernatural in the agency--unconscious of all that may be philosophical in the moral.

It is true, indeed, that dim associations of a religion, sabaean and elementary, such as that of the Pelasgi (but not therefore foreign and philosophical), with a religion physical and popular, are, here and there, to be faintly traced among the eldest of the Grecian authors. We may see that in Jupiter they represented the ether, and in Apollo, and sometimes even in Hercules, the sun. But these authors, while, perhaps unconsciously, they hinted at the symbolical, fixed, by the vitality and nature of their descriptions, the actual images of the gods and, reversing the order of things, Homer created Jupiter! [35]

But most of the subtle and typical interpretations of the Grecian mythology known to us at present were derived from the philosophy of a later age. The explanations of religious fables--such, for instance, as the chaining of Saturn by Jupiter, and the rape of Proserpine by Pluto, in which Saturn is made to signify the revolution of the seasons, chained to the courses of the stars, to prevent too immoderate a speed, and the rape of Proserpine is refined into an allegory that denotes the seeds of corn that the sovereign principle of the earth receives and sepulchres [36];--the moral or physical explanation of legends like these was, I say, the work of the few, reduced to system either from foreign communication or acute invention. For a symbolical religion, created by the priests of one age, is reinstated or remodelled after its corruption by the philosophers of another.

XII. We may here pause a moment to inquire whence the Greeks derived the most lovely and fascinating of their mythological creations--those lesser and more terrestrial beings--the spirits of the mountain, the waters, and the grove.

Throughout the East, from the remotest era, we find that mountains were nature's temples. The sanctity of high places is constantly recorded in the scriptural writings. The Chaldaean, the Egyptian, and the Persian, equally believed that on the summit of mountains they approached themselves nearer to the oracles of heaven. But the fountain, the cavern, and the grove, were no less holy than the mountain-top in the eyes of the first religionists of the East. Streams and fountains were dedicated to the Sun, and their exhalations were supposed to inspire with prophecy, and to breathe of the god. The gloom of caverns, naturally the brooding-place of awe, was deemed a fitting scene for diviner revelations--it inspired unearthly contemplation and mystic revery. Zoroaster is supposed by Porphyry (well versed in all Pagan lore, though frequently misunderstanding its proper character) to have first inculcated the worship of caverns [37]; and there the early priests held a temple, and primeval philosophy its retreat [38]. Groves, especially those in high places, or in the neighbourhood of exhaling streams, were also appropriate to worship, and conducive to the dreams of an excited and credulous imagination; and Pekah, the son of Remaliah, burnt incense, not only on the hills, but "under every green tree." [39]

These places, then--the mountain, the forest, the stream, and the cavern, were equally objects of sanctity and awe among the ancient nations.

But we need not necessarily suppose that a superstition so universal was borrowed, and not conceived, by the early Greeks. The same causes which had made them worship the earth and the sea, extended their faith to the rivers and the mountains, which in a spirit of natural and simple poetry they called "the children" of those elementary deities. The very soil of Greece, broken up and diversified by so many inequalities, stamped with volcanic features, profuse in streams and mephitic fountains, contributed to render the feeling of local divinity prevalent and intense. Each petty canton had its own Nile, whose influence upon fertility and culture was sufficient to become worthy to propitiate, and therefore to personify. Had Greece been united under one monarchy, and characterized by one common monotony of soil, a single river, a single mountain, alone might have been deemed divine. It was the number of its tribes--it was the variety of its natural features, which produced the affluence and prodigality of its mythological creations. Nor can we omit from the causes of the teeming, vivid, and universal superstition of Greece, the accidents of earthquake and inundation, to which the land appears early and often to have been exposed. To the activity and caprice of nature--to the frequent operation of causes, unrecognised, unforeseen, unguessed, the Greeks owed much of their disposition to recur to mysterious and superior agencies--and that wonderful poetry of faith which delighted to associate the visible with the unseen. The peculiar character not only of a people, but of its earlier poets--not only of its soil, but of its air and heaven, colours the superstition it creates: and most of the terrestrial demons which the gloomier North clothed with terror and endowed with malice, took from the benignant genius and the enchanting climes of Greece the gentlest offices and the fairest forms;--yet even in Greece itself not universal in their character, but rather the faithful reflections of the character of each class of worshippers: thus the graces [40], whose "eyes" in the minstrelsey of Hesiod "distilled care-beguiling love," in Lacedaemon were the nymphs of discipline and war!

In quitting this subject, be one remark permitted in digression: the local causes which contributed to superstition might conduct in after times to science. If the Nature that was so constantly in strange and fitful action, drove the Greeks in their social infancy to seek agents for the action and vents for their awe, so, as they advanced to maturer intellect, it was in Nature herself that they sought the causes of effects that appeared at first preternatural. And, in either stage, their curiosity and interest aroused by the phenomena around them--the credulous inventions of ignorance gave way to the eager explanations of philosophy. Often, in the superstition of one age, lies the germe that ripens into the inquiry of the next.

XIII. Pass we now to some examination of the general articles of faith among the Greeks; their sacrifices and rites of worship.

In all the more celebrated nations of the ancient world, we find established those twin elements of belief by which religion harmonizes and directs the social relations of life, viz., a faith in a future state, and in the providence of superior powers, who, surveying as judges the affairs of earth, punish the wicked and reward the good [41]. It has been plausibly conjectured that the fables of Elysium, the slow Cocytus, and the gloomy Hades, were either invented or allegorized from the names of Egyptian places. Diodorus assures us that by the vast catacombs of Egypt, the dismal mansions of the dead-- were the temple and stream, both called Cocytus, the foul canal of Acheron, and the Elysian plains [42]; and, according to the same equivocal authority, the body of the dead was wafted across the waters by a pilot, termed Charon in the Egyptian tongue. But, previous to the embarcation, appointed judges on the margin of the Acheron listened to whatever accusations were preferred by the living against the deceased, and if convinced of his misdeeds, deprived him of the rites of sepulture. Hence it was supposed that Orpheus transplanted into Greece the fable of the infernal regions. But there is good reason to look on this tale with distrust, and to believe that the doctrine of a future state was known to the Greeks without any tuition from Egypt;--while it is certain that the main moral of the Egyptian ceremony, viz., the judgment of the dead, was not familiar to the early doctrine of the Greeks. They did not believe that the good were rewarded and the bad punished in that dreary future, which they imbodied in their notions of the kingdom of the shades. [43]

XIV. Less in the Grecian deities than in the customs in their honour, may we perceive certain traces of oriental superstition. We recognise the usages of the elder creeds in the chosen sites of their temples-- the habitual ceremonies of their worship. It was to the east that the supplicator turned his face, and he was sprinkled, as a necessary purification, with the holy water often alluded to by sacred writers as well as profane--a typical rite entailed from Paganism on the greater proportion of existing Christendom. Nor was any oblation duly prepared until it was mingled with salt--that homely and immemorial offering, ordained not only by the priests of the heathen idols, but also prescribed by Moses to the covenant of the Hebrew God. [44]

XV. We now come to those sacred festivals in celebration of religious mysteries, which inspire modern times with so earnest an interest. Perhaps no subject connected with the religion of the ancients has been cultivated with more laborious erudition, attended with more barren result. And with equal truth and wit, the acute and searching Lobeck has compared the schools of Warburton and St. Croix to the Sabines, who possessed the faculty of dreaming what they wished. According to an ancient and still popular account, the dark enigmas of Eleusis were borrowed from Egypt;--the drama of the Anaglyph [45]. But, in answer to this theory, we must observe, that even if really, at their commencement, the strange and solemn rites which they are asserted to have been--mystical ceremonies grow so naturally out of the connexion between the awful and the unknown--were found so generally among the savages of the ancient world--howsoever dispersed --and still so frequently meet the traveller on shores to which it is indeed a wild speculation to assert that the oriental wisdom ever wandered, that it is more likely that they were the offspring of the native ignorance [46], than the sublime importation of a symbolical philosophy utterly ungenial to the tribes to which it was communicated, and the times to which the institution is referred. And though I would assign to the Eleusinian Mysteries a much earlier date than Lobeck is inclined to affix [47], I search in vain for a more probable supposition of the causes of their origin than that which he suggests, and which I now place before the reader. We have seen that each Grecian state had its peculiar and favourite deities, propitiated by varying ceremonies. The early Greeks imagined that their gods might be won from them by the more earnest prayers and the more splendid offerings of their neighbours; the Homeric heroes found their claim for divine protection on the number of the offerings they have rendered to the deity they implore. And how far the jealous desire to retain to themselves the favour of tutelary gods was entertained by the Greeks, may be illustrated by the instances specially alluding to the low and whispered voice in which prayers were addressed to the superior powers, lest the enemy should hear the address, and vie with interested emulation for the celestial favour. The Eleusinians, in frequent hostilities with their neighbours, the Athenians, might very reasonably therefore exclude the latter from the ceremonies instituted in honour of their guardian divinities, Demeter and Persephone (i. e., Ceres and Proserpine). And we may here add, that secrecy once established, the rites might at a very early period obtain, and perhaps deserve, an enigmatic and mystic character. But when, after a signal defeat of the Eleusinians, the two states were incorporated,

Athens: Its Rise and Fall, Book I. - 6/29

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