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- The Greek View of Life - 3/35 -

calling upon the spirit of hapless Patroclos. As a father waileth when he burneth the bones of his son, new-married, whose death is woe to his hapless parents, so wailed Achilles as he burnt the bones of his comrade, going heavily round the burning pile, with many moans.

"But at the hour when the Morning Star goeth forth to herald light upon the earth, the star that saffron-mantled Dawn cometh after, and spreadeth over the salt sea, then grew the burning faint, and the flame died down. And the Winds went back again to betake them home over the Thracian main, and it roared with a violent swell. Then the son of Peleus turned away from the burning and lay down wearied, and sweet sleep leapt on him." [Footnote: Iliad xxiii. p. 193.--Translated by Lang, Leaf and Myers.]

The exquisite beauty of this passage, even in translation, will escape no lover of poetry. And it is a beauty which depends on the character of the Greek religion; on the fact that all that is unintelligible in the world, all that is alien to man, has been drawn, as it were, from its dark retreat, clothed in radiant form, and presented to the mind as a glorified image of itself. Every phenomenon of nature, night and "rosy- fingered" dawn, earth and sun, winds, rivers, and seas, sleep and death,--all have been transformed into divine and conscious agents, to be propitiated by prayer, interpreted by divination, and comprehended by passions and desires identical with those which stir and control mankind.

Section 3. Greek Religion an Interpretation of the Human Passions.

And as with the external world, so with the world within. The powers of nature were not the only ones felt by man to be different from and alien to himself; there were others, equally strange, dwelling in his own heart, which, though in a sense they were part of him, yet he felt to be not himself, which came upon him and possessed him without his choice and against his will. With these too he felt the need to make himself at home, and these too, to satisfy his need, he shaped into creatures like himself. To the whole range of his inner experience he gave definition and life, presenting it to himself in a series of spiritual forms. In Aphrodite, mother of Eros, he incarnated the passion of love, placing in her broidered girdle "love and desire of loving converse that steals the wits even of the wise"; in Ares he embodied the lust of war; in Athene, wisdom; in Apollo, music and the arts. The pangs of guilt took shape in the conception of avenging Furies; and the very prayers of the worshipper sped from him in human form, wrinkled and blear-eyed, with halting pace, in the rear of punishment. Thus the very self of man he set outside himself; the powers, so intimate, and yet so strange, that swayed him from within he made familiar by making them distinct; converted their shapeless terror into the beauty of visible form; and by merely presenting them thus to himself in a guise that was immediately understood, set aside, if he could not answer, the haunting question of their origin and end.

Here then is at least a partial reply to our question as to the effect of a belief in the gods on the feeling of the Greek. To repeat the phrase once more, it made him at home in the world. The mysterious powers that controlled him it converted into beings like himself; and so gave him heart and breathing-space, shut in, as it were, from the abyss by this shining host of fair and familiar forms, to turn to the interests and claims of the passing hour an attention undistracted by doubt and fear.

Section 4. Greek Religion the Foundation of Society.

But this relation to the world of nature is only one side of man's life; more prominent and more important, at a later stage of his development, is his relation to society; and here too in Greek civilization a great part was played by religion. For the Greek gods, we must remember, were not purely spiritual powers, to be known and approached only in the heart by prayer. They were beings in human form, like, though superior to ourselves, who passed a great part of their history on earth, intervened in the affairs of men, furthered or thwarted their undertakings, begat among them sons and daughters, and followed, from generation to generation, the fortunes of their children's children. Between them and mankind there was no impassable gulf; from Heracles the son of Zeus was descended the Dorian race; the Ionians from Ion, son of Apollo; every family, every tribe traced back its origin to a "hero", and these "heroes" were children of the gods, and deities themselves. Thus were the gods, in the most literal sense, the founders of society; from them was derived, even physically, the unit of the family and the race; and the whole social structure raised upon that natural basis was necessarily penetrated through and through by the spirit of religion.

We must not therefore be misled by the fact that there was no church in the Greek state to the idea that the state recognised no religion; on the contrary, religion was so essential to the state, so bound up with its whole structure, in general and in detail, that the very conception of a separation between the powers was impossible. If there was no separate church, in our sense of the term, as an independent organism within the state, it was because the state, in one of its aspects, was itself a church, and derived its sanction, both as a whole and in its parts, from the same gods who controlled the physical world. Not only the community as a whole but all its separate minor organs were under the protection of patron deities. The family centred in the hearth, where the father, in his capacity of priest, offered sacrifice and prayer to the ancestors of the house; the various corporations into which families were grouped, the local divisions for the purpose of taxation, elections, and the like, derived a spiritual unity from the worship of a common god; and finally the all-embracing totality of the state itself was explained and justified to all its members by the cult of the special protecting deity to whom its origin and prosperous continuance were due. The sailor who saw, on turning the point of Sunium, the tip of the spear of Athene glittering on the Acropolis, beheld in a type the spiritual form of the state; Athene and Athens were but two aspects of the same thing; and the statue of the goddess of wisdom dominating the city of the arts may serve to sum up for us the ideal of that marvellous corporate life where there was no ecclesiastical religion only because there was no secular state.

Regarded from this point of view, we may say that the religion of the Greeks was the spiritual side of their political life. And we must add that in one respect their religion pointed the way to a higher political achievement than they were ever able to realise in fact. One fatal defect of the Greek civilisation, as is familiar to students of their history, was the failure of the various independent city states to coalesce into a single harmonious whole. But the tendency of religion was to obviate this defect. We find, for example, that at one time or another federations of states were formed to support in common the cult of some god; and one cult in particular there was--that of the Delphian Apollo--whose influence on political no less than on religious life was felt as far as and even beyond the limits of the Greek race. No colony could be founded, no war hazarded, no peace confirmed, without the advice and approval of the god--whose cult was thus at once a religious centre for the whole of Greece, and a forecast of a political unity that should co-ordinate into a whole her chaos of conflicting states.

The religion of the Greeks being thus, as we have seen, the presupposition and bond of their political life, we find its sanction extended at every point to custom and law. The persons of heralds, for example, were held to be under divine protection; treaties between states and contracts between individuals were confirmed by oath; the vengeance of the gods was invoked upon infringers of the law; national assemblies and military expeditions were inaugurated by public prayers; the whole of corporate life, in short, social and political, was so embraced and bathed in an idealising element of ritual that the secular and religious aspects of the state must have been as inseparable to a Greek in idea as we know them to have been in constitution.

Section 5. Religious Festivals.

For it was in ritual and art, not in propositions, that the Greek religion expressed itself; and in this respect it was closer to the Roman Catholic than to the Protestant branch of the Christian faith. The plastic genius of the race, that passion to embody ideas in form, which was at the root, as we saw, of their whole religious outlook, drove them to enact for their own delight, in the most beautiful and telling forms, the whole conception they had framed of the world and of themselves. The changes of the seasons, with the toil they exact and the gifts they bring, the powers of generation and destruction, the bounty or the rigours of the earth; and on the other hand, the order and operations of social phenomena, the divisions of age and sex, of function and of rank in the state--all these took shape and came, as it were, to self- consciousness in a magnificent series of publicly ordered _fetes_. So numerous were these and so diverse in their character that it would be impossible, even if it were desirable in this place, to give any general account of them. Our purpose will be better served by a description of two, selected from the calendar of Athens, and typical, the one of the relations of man to nature, the other of his relation to the state. The festivals we have chosen are those known as the "Anthesteria" [Footnote: This interpretation of the meaning of the "Anthesteria" is not accepted by modern scholars. It is not, however, for typographical reasons, convenient to remove it from the text, and the error is of no importance for the purpose of this book.] and the "Panathenaea."

The Anthesteria was held at that season of the year when, as Pindar sings in an ode composed to be sung upon the occasion, "the chamber of the Hours is opened and the blossoms hear the voice of the fragrant spring; when violet clusters are flung on the lap of earth, and chaplets of roses braided in the hair; when the sound of the flute is heard and choirs chanting hymns to Semele." On the natural side the festival records the coming of spring and the fermenting of last year's wine; on the spiritual, its centre is Dionysus, who not only was the god of wine, but, according to another legend, symbolised in his fate the death of the year in winter and its rebirth at spring.

The ceremonies open with a scene of abandoned jollity; servants and slaves are invited to share in the universal revel; the school holidays begin; and all the place is alive with the bustle and fun of a great fair. Bargaining, peep-shows, conjuring, and the like fill up the hours of the day; and towards evening the holiday-makers assemble garlanded and crowned in preparation for the great procession. The procession takes place by torch-light; the statue of Dionysus leads the way, and the revellers follow and swarm about him, in carriages or on foot, costumed as Hours or Nymphs or Bacchae in the train of the god of wine. The destination is the temple of the god and there sacrifice is performed with the usual accompaniment of song and dance; the whole closing with a banquet and a drinking contest, similar to those in vogue among the German students. Aristophanes has described the scene for us--

"Couches, tables, Cushions and coverlets for mattresses, Dancing and singing-girls for mistresses, Plum cake and plain, comfits and caraways, Confectionery, fruits preserved and fresh, Relishes of all sorts, hot things and bitter, Savouries and sweets, broiled biscuits and what not; Flowers and perfumes, and garlands, everything." [Footnote: Aristoph. Ach. 1090.--Frere's translation.]

The Greek View of Life - 3/35

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