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- The Greek View of Life - 2/35 -

9. Protests against the Common View of Woman

10. Friendship

11. Summary


1. Greek Art an Expression of National Life

2. Identification of the Aesthetic and Ethical points of View

3. Sculpture and Painting

4. Music and the Dance

5. Poetry

6. Tragedy

7. Comedy

8. Summary





Section 1. Introductory.

In approaching the subject of the religion of the Greeks it is necessary to dismiss at the outset many of the associations which we are naturally inclined to connect with that word. What we commonly have in our mind when we speak of religion is a definite set of doctrines, of a more or less metaphysical character, formulated in a creed and supported by an organisation distinct from the state. And the first thing we have to learn about the religion of the Greeks is that it included nothing of the kind. There was no church, there was no creed, there were no articles; there was no doctrine even, unless we are so to call a chaos of legends orally handed down and in continual process of transformation by the poets. Priests there were, but they were merely public officials, appointed to perform certain religious rites. The distinction between cleric and layman, as we know it, did not exist; the distinction between poetry and dogma did not exist; and whatever the religion of the Greeks may have been, one thing at any rate is clear, that it was something very different from all that we are in the habit of associating with the word.

What then was it? It is easy to reply that it was the worship of those gods--of Zeus, Apollo, Athene, and the rest--with whose names and histories every one is familiar. But the difficulty is to realise what was implied in the worship of these gods; to understand that the mythology which we regard merely as a collection of fables was to the Greeks actually true; or at least that to nine Greeks out of ten it would never occur that it might be false, might be, as we say, mere stories. So that though no doubt the histories of the gods were in part the inventions of the poets, yet the poets would conceive themselves to be merely putting into form what they and every one believed to be essentially true.

But such a belief implies a fundamental distinction between the conception, or rather, perhaps, the feeling of the Greeks about the world, and our own. And it is this feeling that we want to understand when we ask ourselves the question, what did a belief in the gods really mean to the ancient Greeks? To answer it fully and satisfactorily is perhaps impossible. But some attempt must be made; and it may help us in our quest if we endeavour to imagine the kind of questionings and doubts which the conception of the gods would set at rest.

Section 2. Greek Religion an Interpretation of Nature.

When we try to conceive the state of mind of primitive man the first thing that occurs to us is the bewilderment and terror he must have felt in the presence of the powers of nature. Naked, houseless, weaponless, he is at the mercy, every hour, of this immense and incalculable Something so alien and so hostile to himself. As fire it burns, as water it drowns, as tempest it harries and destroys; benignant it may be at times, in warm sunshine and calm, but the kindness is brief and treacherous. Anyhow, whatever its mood, it has to be met and dealt with. By its help, or, if not, in the teeth of its resistance, every step in advance must be won; every hour, every minute, it is there to be reckoned with. What is it then, this persistent, obscure, unnameable Thing? What is it? The question haunts the mind; it will not be put aside; and the Greek at last, like other men under similar conditions, only with a lucidity and precision peculiar to himself, makes the reply, "it is something like myself." Every power of nature he presumes to be a spiritual being, impersonating the sky as Zeus, the earth as Demeter, the sea as Poseidon; from generation to generation under his shaping hands, the figures multiply and define themselves; character and story crystallise about what at first were little more than names; till at last, from the womb of the dark enigma that haunted him in the beginning, there emerges into the charmed light of a world of ideal grace a pantheon of fair and concrete personalities. Nature has become a company of spirits; every cave and fountain is haunted by a nymph; in the ocean dwell the Nereids, in the mountain the Oread, the Dryad in the wood; and everywhere, in groves and marshes, on the pastures or the rocky heights, floating in the current of the streams or traversing untrodden snows, in the day at the chase and as evening closes in solitude fingering his flute, seen and heard by shepherds, alone or with his dancing train, is to be met the horned and goat-footed, the sunny- smiling Pan.

Thus conceived, the world has become less terrible because more familiar. All that was incomprehensible, all that was obscure and dark, has now been seized and bodied forth in form, so that everywhere man is confronted no longer with blind and unintelligible force, but with spiritual beings moved by like passions with himself. The gods, it is true, were capricious and often hostile to his good, but at least they had a nature akin to his; if they were angry, they might be propitiated; if they were jealous, they might be appeased; the enmity of one might be compensated by the friendship of another; dealings with them, after all, were not so unlike dealings with men, and at the worst there was always a chance for courage, patience and wit.

Man, in short, by his religion has been made at home in the world; and that is the first point to seize upon. To drive it home, let us take an illustration from the story of Odysseus. Odysseus, it will be remembered, after the sack of Troy, for ten years was a wanderer on the seas, by tempest, enchantment, and every kind of danger detained, as it seemed, beyond hope of return from the wife and home he had left in Ithaca. The situation is forlorn enough. Yet, somehow or other, beauty in the story predominates over terror. And this, in part at least, because the powers with which Odysseus has to do, are not mere forces of nature, blind and indifferent, but spiritual beings who take an interest, for or against, in his fate. The whole story becomes familiar, and, if one may say so, comfortable, by the fact that it is conducted under the control and direction of the gods. Listen, for example, to the Homeric account of the onset of a storm, and observe how it sets one at ease with the elements:

"Now the lord, the shaker of the earth, on his way from the Ethiopians, espied Odysseus afar off from the mountains of the Solymi: even thence he saw him as he sailed over the deep; and he was yet more angered in spirit, and wagging his head he communed with his own heart. 'Lo now, it must be that the gods at the last have changed their purpose concerning Odysseus, while I was away among the Ethiopians. And now he is nigh to the Phaeacian land, where it is so ordained that he escape the great issues of the woe which hath come upon him. But me-thinks, that even yet I will drive him far enough in the path of suffering.'

"With that he gathered the clouds and troubled the waters of the deep, grasping his trident in his hands; and he roused all storms of all manner of winds, and shrouded in clouds the land and sea: and down sped night from heaven. The East Wind and the South Wind clashed, and the stormy West, and the North, that is born in the bright air, rolling onward a great wave." [Footnote: Odyss. v. 282.--Translated by Butcher and Lang.]

The position of the hero is terrible, it is true, but not with the terror of despair; for as it is a god that wrecked him, it may also be a god that will save. If Poseidon is his enemy, Athene, he knows, is his friend; and all lies, after all, in the hands, or, as the Greeks said, "on the knees," not of a blind destiny, but of beings accessible to prayer.

Let us take another passage from Homer to illustrate the same point. It is the place where Achilles is endeavouring to light the funeral pyre of Patroclus, but because there is no wind the fire will not catch. What is he to do? What _can_ he do? Nothing, say we, but wait till the wind comes. But to the Greek the winds are persons, not elements; Achilles has only to call and to promise, and they will listen to his voice. And so, we are told, "fleet-footed noble Achilles had a further thought: standing aside from the pyre he prayed to the two winds of North and West, and promised them fair offerings, and pouring large libations from a golden cup besought them to come, that the corpses might blaze up speedily in the fire, and the wood make haste to be enkindled. Then Iris, when she heard his prayer, went swiftly with the message to the Winds. They within the house of the gusty West Wind were feasting all together at meat, when Iris sped thither, and halted on the threshold of stone. And when they saw her with their eyes, they sprung up and called to her every one to sit by him. But she refused to sit, and spake her word: 'No seat for me; I must go back to the streams of Ocean, to the Ethiopians' land where they sacrifice hecatombs to the immortal gods, that I too may feast at their rites. But Achilles is praying the North Wind and the loud West to come, and promising them fair offerings, that ye may make the pyre be kindled whereon lieth Patroclos, for whom all the Achaians are making moan.'

"She having thus said departed, and they arose with a mighty sound, rolling the clouds before them. And swiftly they came blowing over the sea, and the wave rose beneath their shrill blast; and they came to deep-soiled Troy, and fell upon the pile, and loudly roared the mighty fire. So all night drave they the flame of the pyre together, blowing shrill; and all night fleet Achilles, holding a two-handled cup, drew wine from a golden bowl, and poured it forth and drenched the earth,

The Greek View of Life - 2/35

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