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- The Greek View of Life - 4/35 -


and in the midst of this the signal given by the trumpet, the simultaneous draught of wine, and the prize adjudged to the man who is the first to empty his cup.

Thus ends the first phase of the festival. So far all has been mirth and revelry; but now comes a sudden change of tone. Dionysus, god of wine though he be, has also his tragic aspect; of him too there is recorded a "descent into hell"; and to the glad celebration of the renewal of life in spring succeeds a feast in honour of the dead. The ghosts, it is supposed, come forth to the upper air; every door-post is smeared with pitch to keep off the wandering shades; and every family sacrifices to its own departed. Nor are the arts forgotten; a musical festival is held, and competing choirs sing and dance in honour of the god.

Such, so far as our brief and imperfect records enable us to trace it, was the ritual of a typical Greek festival. With the many questions that might be raised as to its origin and development we need not concern ourselves at present; what we have to note is the broad fact, characteristic of the genius of the Greeks, that they have taken the natural emotions excited by the birth of spring, and by connecting them with the worship of Dionysus have given them expression and form; so that what in its origin was a mere burst of primitive animal spirits is transmuted into a complex and beautiful work of art, the secret springs and fountains of physical life flowing into the forms of a spiritual symbol. It is this that is the real meaning of all ceremonial, and this that the Greeks better than any other people understood. Their religion, one may almost say, consisted in ritual; and to attempt to divide the inner from the outer would be to falsify from the beginning its distinctive character.

Let us pass to our second illustration, the great city-festival of Athens. In the Anthesteria it was a moment of nature that was seized and idealized; here, in the Panathenaea, it is the forms of social life, its distinctions within its embracing unity, that are set forth in their interdependence as functions of a spiritual life. In this great national fete, held every four years, all the higher activities of Athenian life were ideally displayed--contests of song, of lyre and of flute, foot and horse races, wrestling, boxing, and the like, military evolutions of infantry and horse, pyrrhic dances symbolic of attack and defence in war, mystic chants of women and choruses of youths--the whole concentring and discharging itself in that great processional act in which, as it were, the material forms of society became transparent, and the Whole moved on, illumined and visibly sustained by the spiritual soul of which it was the complete and harmonious embodiment. Of this procession we have still in the frieze of the Parthenon a marble transcript. There we may see the life of ancient Athens moving in stone, from the first mounting of their horses by isolated youths, like the slow and dropping prelude of a symphony, on to the thronged and trampling ranks of cavalry, past the antique chariots reminiscent of Homeric war, and the marching band of flutes and zithers, by lines of men and maidens bearing sacrificial urns, by the garlanded sheep and oxen destined for sacrifice, to where, on turning the corner that leads to the eastern front, we find ourselves in the presence of the Olympian gods themselves, enthroned to receive the offering of a people's life. And if to this marble representation we add the colour it lacks, the gold and silver of the vessels, the purple and saffron robes; if we set the music playing and bid the oxen low; if we gird our living picture with the blaze of an August noon and crown it with the Acropolis of Athens, we may form a conception, better perhaps than could otherwise be obtained, of what religion really meant to the citizen of a state whose activities were thus habitually symbolised in the cult of its patron deity. Religion to him, clearly, could hardly be a thing apart, dwelling in the internal region of the soul and leaving outside, untouched by the light of the ideal, the whole business and complexity of the material side of life; to him it was the vividly present and active soul of his corporate existence, representing in the symbolic forms of ritual the actual facts of his experience. What he re-enacted periodically, in ordered ceremony, was but the drama of his daily life; so that, as we said before, the state in one of its aspects was a church, and every layman from one point of view a priest.

The question, "What did a belief in the gods really mean to the Greek" has now received at least some sort of answer. It meant, to recur to our old phrase, that he was made at home in the world. In place of the unintelligible powers of nature, he was surrounded by a company of beings like himself; and these beings who controlled the physical world were also the creators of human society. From them were descended the Heroes who founded families and states; and under their guidance and protection cities prospered and throve. Their histories were recounted in innumerable myths, and these again were embodied in ritual. The whole life of man, in its relations both to nature and to society, was conceived as derived from and dependent upon his gods; and this dependence was expressed and brought vividly home to him in a series of religious festivals. Belief in the gods was not to him so much an intellectual conviction, as a spiritual atmosphere in which he moved; and to think it away would be to think away the whole structure of Greek civilisation.

Section 6. The Greek Conception of the Relation of Man to the Gods.

Admitting, however, that all this is true, admitting the place of religion in Greek life, do we not end, after all, in a greater puzzle than we began with? For this, it may be said, whatever it may be, is not what we mean by religion. This, after all, is merely a beautiful way of expressing facts; a translation, not an interpretation, of life. What we mean by religion is something very different to that, something which concerns the relation of the soul to God; the sense of sin, for example, and of repentance and grace. The religion of the Greeks, we may admit, did something for them which our religion does not do for us. It gave intelligible and beautiful form to those phenomena of nature which we can only describe as manifestations of energy; it expressed in a ritual of exquisite art those corporate relations which we can only enunciate in abstract terms; but did it perform what after all, it may be said, is the true function of religion? did it touch the conscience as well as the imagination and intellect?

To this question we may answer at once, broadly speaking, No! It was, we might say, a distinguishing characteristic of the Greek religion that it did not concern itself with the conscience at all; the conscience, in fact, did not yet exist, to enact that drama of the soul with God which is the main interest of the Christian, or at least of the Protestant faith. To bring this point home to us let us open the "Pilgrim's Progress", and present to ourselves, in its most vivid colours, the position of the English Puritan:

"Now, I saw, upon a time, when he was walking in the fields, that he was (as he was wont) reading in his book, and greatly distressed in his mind; and, as he read, he burst out, as he had done before, crying, 'What shall I do to be saved?' I looked then, and saw a man named Evangelist coming to him, and asked, 'Wherefore dost thou cry?'

"He answered, 'Sir, I perceive by the book in my hand, that I am condemned to die, and after that to come to judgment; and I find that I am not willing to do the first, nor able to do the second.'

"Then said Evangelist, 'Why not willing to die, since this life is attended with so many evils?' The man answered, 'Because I fear that this burden that is upon my back will sink me lower than the grave, and I shall fall into Tophet. And, Sir, if I be not fit to go to prison, I am not fit to go to judgment, and from thence to execution; and the thoughts of these things makes me cry.'

"Then said Evangelist, 'If this be thy condition, why standest thou still?' He answered, 'Because I know not whither to go.' Then he gave him a parchment roll, and there was written within, 'Fly from the wrath to come.'"

The whole spirit of the passage transcribed, and of the book from which it is quoted, is as alien as can be to the spirit of the Greeks. To the Puritan, the inward relation of the soul to God is everything; to the average Greek, one may say broadly, it was nothing; it would have been at variance with his whole conception of the divine power. For the gods of Greece were beings essentially like man, superior to him not in spiritual nor even in moral attributes, but in outward gifts, such as strength, beauty, and immortality. And as a consequence of this his relations to them were not inward and spiritual, but external and mechanical. In the midst of a crowd of deities, capricious and conflicting in their wills, he had to find his way as best he could. There was no knowing precisely what a god might want; there was no knowing what he might be going to do. If a man fell into trouble, no doubt he had offended somebody, but it was not so easy to say whom or how; if he neglected the proper observances no doubt he would be punished, but it was not everyone who knew what the proper observances were. Altogether it was a difficult thing to ascertain or to move the will of the gods, and one must help oneself as best one could. The Greek, accordingly, helped himself by an elaborate system of sacrifice and prayer and divination, a system which had no connection with an internal spiritual life, but the object of which was simply to discover and if possible to affect the divine purposes. This is what we meant by saying that the Greek view of the relation of man to the gods was mechanical. The point will become clearer by illustration.

Section 7. Divination, Omens, Oracles.

Let us take first a question which much exercised the Greek mind--the difficulty of forecasting the future. Clearly, the notion that the world was controlled by a crowd of capricious deities, swayed by human passions and desires, was incompatible with the idea of fixed law; but on the other hand it made it possible to suppose that some intimation might be had from the gods, either directly or symbolically, of what their intentions and purposes really were. And on this hypothesis we find developed quite early in Greek history, a complex art of divining the future by signs. The flight of birds and other phenomena of the heavens, events encountered on the road, the speech of passers-by, or, most important of all, the appearance of the entrails of the victims sacrificed were supposed to indicate the probable course of events. And this art, already mature in the time of the Homeric poems, we find flourishing throughout the historic age. Nothing could better indicate its prevalence and its scope than the following passage from Aristophanes, where he ridicules the readiness of his contemporaries to see in everything an omen, or, as he puts it, punning on the Greek word, a "bird": "On us you depend," sings his chorus of Birds,

"On us you depend, and to us you repair For counsel and aid, when a marriage is made, A purchase, a bargain, a venture in trade; Unlucky or lucky, whatever has struck ye, An ox or an ass, that may happen to pass, A voice in the street, or a slave that you meet, A name or a word by chance overheard, You deem it an omen, and call it a Bird." [Footnote: Aristoph. "Birds" 717.--Frere's translation.]

Aristophanes, of course, is jesting; but how serious and important this art of divination must have appeared even to the most cultivated Athenians may be gathered from a passage of the tragedian Aeschylus, where he mentions it as one of the benefits conferred by Prometheus on


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