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The makers of Hellas: a critical inquiry into the philosophy and religion of ancient Greece online

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another reason for this supposed preference for city life in the fact that they
had practically no choice 1 How long would our own enthusiasm for Nature
last, if it had to be maintained in a region exposed every summer to the
ravages of an invading army, as was the case in Attica during the Pelopon-
nesian War*?! — a common-sense question to be taken into account in a
" common-sense " argument. We may be sure that all Greeks, even later
Greeks, were not so enamoured of the study of Man as was Socrates, and as
for the first Hellenes, there is clear evidence they lived face to face with
Nature, and loved her too.

Now that we have considered the three negative objections to our position,
and shown, as we believe, good reason why the Greeks did not write descriptive
poetry, why they did not excel in landscape-painting, why they did not prefer
country to city, let us just look at certain very positive facts, which will reveal
to us a good deal of what they really did think about Nature, and what they
saw in her.

(i) First, then, we, too, bring forward our literary argument. We, too,
maintain that, " Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaketh," and
we point to the testimony of the great univritten literature of the Hellenes, the
Language which they built up before written signs, and with these what we
technically call " Literature," came into use among them. If many a word
coined in the youth of the world may justly be regarded as a " poem " in
itself, so may many a Greek place-name — the name of mountain, or river, or
headland — be described as a "landscape" in itself, a scene in which some
feature of nature is seized and treasured up. This is a subject so rich and full
that we must reserve it for consideration in a more fitting place. ^ Here it is
enough to note that such names exist in abundance, and that they could not
by any possibility have been coined by a people with " no eye " for nature.

But we go further than this. We say that, just as the influence of the
Greek religion may be felt in Greek sculpture, so also may it be traced as
affecting in a curious way Greek literature. The fact that every object had its
divine representative precluded, in great measure, descriptions of the land-
scape (Woermann). Thus, where a modern poet would wax eloquent over day-
break, the rosy flushing of the sky, and the awaking of earth to new life, the
Greek poet simply said that Eos — "rosy-fingered," " white- winged," "saffron-
robed," "gold-enthroned," Eos — "the Dawn," had appeared.

But we go further still than this. We maintain that a love of nature may
be shewn in a hundred ways besides direct eulogy of nature ; and we say that
such a love of nature is the essence of Homer. It is his very life-breath ; he
cannot repress it.

" But," says the reader, " how do you reconcile this assertion with the
criticism of Lessing, which you have just brought forward as true ? " In
judging any poet, we reply, the circumstances under which his work arose
must always be taken into account ; and when we recollect that the Iliad grew

^ Thucydides says expressly that the country people of Attica felt keenly the trial of
removal to Athens during the War (ii. 16).
2 See the section on Language.


up for the delectation of an audience composed almost conclusively of men of
action, we can see very plainly how the rule pointed out by Lessing came to be
a rule. Lengthy eulogies of scenery would have had no interest for the warrior
knights and the huntsmen of the Heroic Age ; such men would have been
simply bored by them. The poet or rhapsodist was bound to respect the
susceptibilities of his audience. To have been a " bore," would have been to
lose his influence. But, then, on the other hand, Homer was a poet, a maker,
a creator. What, then, about that Inner Self whose dictates the poet is bound
to respect more than the whims of any audience ? Homer was a true poet, and
as such in sympathy with nature. The " shadowy mountains and the echoing
sea" were never very far from his thoughts, and speak of them he must.
How, then, does he get over the difficulty ? Genius will always find a way of
escape. How does he at once satisfy his hearers and liberate his own soul ?
By his wonderful Similes — the most striking and truthful of nature-pictures
ever drawn. The Iliad is full of metaphors ; it has been computed to contain
some 1 80, and of these;by far the greater proportion are taken directly from
nature. And, let us note, they are mostly pictures of nature in action.
Homer understood his audience. Those grim old warriors, who would not
have tolerated a description of any object in nature merely for the sake of
itself (such a description would have seemed to them perfectly unnecessary and
tedious, seeing that they already k7iew it), could yet be roused into a furore
of enthusiasm, such as we read of in later days in the Ion of Plato, by an
association of this very object with some action or deed, with which they them-
selves were in perfect sympathy. They, too, were Hellenes, and had a love
for nature, in their own way. And how adroitly does Homer use this point of
vantage ; how skilfully does he introduce his little bits of description ; how
careful he is that he shall never be wearisome, that, as Lessing says, they shall
always be subordinate to the narrative ; with what a verve do they dash in and
carry all before them ! Then, when he feels sure that he has roused his audi-
tors, and can count upon their patience, how he delights in his art, how he
paints in details (often quite unnecessary for the purposes of the simile), and
revels in his own reproductions of nature ! Simile follows hard upon simile.
They pour from his brain, to use one of his own metaphors (Iliad, ii. 87), as
pour the tribes of honey-bees from out the hollow rock, forth -swarming ever
new, and fly, thick- clustered, on the flowers of spring. At every point of
interest in the narrative, at every crisis in the fate of his heroes, Homer sees
his opportunity, and is ready with his "Even as," or his "Like to." So we
find that there are no elaborated similes in the first book of the Iliad,^ — the
poet's hearers are not yet interested in the story ; but no sooner is this
effected, no sooner are poet and audience thoroughly warmed to the matter
in hand, than they begin. And once Homer has his flowing-haired Achseans
fairly on the march, how the similes buzz about us, to be sure ! The poet has
his revenge for the repression of the first book, and sends forth in the second,
no fewer than five nature-pictures, " all in a breath," in the space of two-and-
twenty lines {Iliad, ii. 455-476).

So much as to the manner ; then as to the matter, the Stoff of his similes.
Leaving on one side the pictures drawn from animal life, which are among
the boldest and most striking, we find painted for us with rare truth and fidelity
all those phenomena of a mountain-land with which we have already become
acquainted. Fire in the forest on a mountain-side ; clouds motionless on a

^ Very perfect short ones, however ; as when Apollo in his wrath descends from Olympus
"like to night" (47), or when silver-footed Thetis rises from the grey sea "like a mist" (359).
See also, for a little bit of nature, the history of the sceptre of Achilles (234 et seq.).


mountain-ridge while the might of the North-wind sleepeth ; mountain torrents
rushing furiously in winter-flood to the plain, bearing dry oaks, pines, and
much soil to the sea ; the boulder carried headlong with them ; the crashing
of the winds amid the trees of the forest : each and .all are used to illustrate
some point of the story (Iliad, ii. 455 ; v. 522 ; xi. 492 ; xiii. 136 ; xvi. 765).

The simile of the boulder, brought to a halt in its eager descent, although
by no means one of the most beautiful in Homer, affords a capital example of
the poet's Schwung or " go." It illustrates Hector's onset at the ships of the
Greeks, and the check which he meets with : — ^

" On pressed the Trojan masses : Hector led,
Impetuous rushing, as a mighty stone
Kent from the rock ; which from some mountain brow
A torrent has dislodged, with furious flood
Breaking the holdings of the giant crag :
Bounding on high it flies ; beneath it yields
The crashing wood ; on, ever on, it speeds
Unchecked, apace, until it reach the plain :
Then stays, perforce, its haste, and rolls no more."

— Iliad, xiii. 136-142.

Then how beautifully, how pitifully does the poet describe the death of his
heroes ! When they fall, they fall like a poppy in a garden, that droopeth its
head aside, heavy with fruit and with the showers of spring ; or like a young
olive which a man has reared beside the water- springs : blooming and beautiful
it stands, just bursting into white blossom, when suddenly there cometh a wind
with much storm, wrencheth it from its place, and layeth it low ; or they are
like to an ash-tree on the crest of a hill seen from afar : hewn down by the axe,
it bringeth its delicate foliage to the ground ; or they fall as falls the oak, or
the silver poplar, or the lofty pine, felled by the shipwrights on the hills with
newly-whetted axe to build their craft {Iliad, y\\\. 306; xvii. 53; xiii. 178,
389 ; xvi. 482).

But most beavitiful of all to the mind of us English folk are the sea-pictures
of Homer ; and, verily, we think that the breath of his salt spray and the dash of
his great waves on the rocky beach, have something to do with that at-liomeness
which we feel in Homer. Just as with the phenomena of the mountains, so are
the features of the sea brought into the action of the story. The strange,
silent, resolute march of the Danaans before the attack, for instance, is as
when a billow away out at sea first reareth its crest (in silence), then, breaking
on the land with mighty roar, it rounds with arching head the rocky points,
and spitteth forth afar the salt sea-foam. Or, when the Greeks themselves
meet the onset of the foe, they present a front compact as a tower, like to a
huge steep rock hard by the grey sea — a rock that abides the swift paths of
the shrill winds and the swollen waves that break foaming upon it {Iliad, iv.
424; XV. 618). Or, again, look at this picture of the waves driven before the
winds ; how it intensifies Hector's impetuous rush ! —

" As clouds that of the white South bred
Are by the West wind driven, what time he smites
With headlong squall. On rolls the swelling wave,
High flies the scattered spray beneath the force
Of the wide- wandering wind. So frequent fell,
Vanquished by Hector's might, his f oemen's heads." '^

— Iliad, xi. 304 et seq.

1 The translation is from the admirable Similes of Homer, by the Rev. W. C. Green (1877).

2 Mr. Green's translation, op. cit. See also another very beautiful passage descriptive of
the lull before a storm {Iliad, xiv. 16 et seq.), where, in illustration of Nestor's irresolution, the
poet speaks of the " dumb wave " awaiting the rising of the winds.


The sea was known to Homer in all its varied moods and phases. He too
calls it, as did our own ancestors, "the barren," ^ " the unharvested," " the unvin-
taged " ; he, too, knows it as Thalassa, " the storm-tossed winter sea," which can
keep a man prisoner, far from wife and home ; but well he knows it also as
Pontos, "the path," and many a time must he have sailed over its " watery ways,"
on its " broad back." Then, what beautiful epithets he coins for it ! If it is
to him the grey sea, or the loud-roaring, or the black sea, it is also the hoary,
the wine-dark, the violet-hued, the purple, the echoing, the glittering, the
boundless, the divine — and divine to the poet, in all ages, the sea must be.

In yet another way Homer knew the sea — he knew it in a way which some
critics would deny to him. Homer, they tell us, is " utilitarian " in his
allusions to nature. What a nice word this "utilitarian" is, to be sure!
how admirably it brings the Great Unknown down to the level of current
criticism. Let us consider this : In the very opening of the Iliad when
Agamemnon has dismissed the priest of Apollo with hard and contemptuous
words — what does the old man do? Make his way to Troy, and tell his
pitiful tale to Hector, the favourite of Apollo ? This is what he ought to have
done, to keep the theory of the aforesaid critics upright. But what does
Homer tell us that he did ? —

" Silently he fared along the shore of the loud-roaring sea."

And there, beside the tossing waves — to Homer, as to us, a reflection of
the troubled soul — he tells his grief to Apollo himself. Verily, this one line
outweighs volumes of shallow criticism (c/. H. Motz, Uehei' die Empfindung
der Natursclionheit hei den Alien).

The counterpart to this picture of dejection is given in the account of
the return voyage of the Achaeans after expiation has been made for
Agamemnon's insolence, and Chryseis of the fair-cheeks has been restored to
her father. No sooner has rosy-fingered Dawn appeared, than the Far-Darter
sends a favouring gale, and they set up the mast and the white sails swell in
the breeze, and the dark wave shouts aloud around the keel as the ship speeds
along to the wide camp of the Achaeans. Could • any description be more
beautiful ? — bright Dawn, the white-winged ship, the glorious breeze, the dark
wave shouting, " singing " aloud for joy, around the ship. All nature is in
harmony with the glad hearts of the Achaeans ; now at length the wrath of
the Far-Darter is appeased {Iliad, i. 477 et seq.).

We might go on to tell of a certain scene in the Odyssey — the vine-hung
grotto of Calypso, with its violet meadows and its silver streams — a scene
which the poet describes as so beautiful that even a deathless god — Hermes —
pauses before it in wonder and admiration (v. 73). But time presses, and
we have said enough, we trow, to prove that Homer is the best interpreter
both of himself and of his people. In his pages the love of nature is writ
so large that he that runs may read, unless of set purpose he close his eyes.

(2) Then, secondly, we, too, bring forward our artistic argument, and we main-
tain that the peculiar development which Art took in Greece was due, in great
measure, to the peculiar influence of Greek landscape. As regards this, there
is not only the testimony of Greek sculpture, already considered, but of Greek
architecture. To attribute the rise of these sister arts among the Greeks to
the fact that in their marble-quarries abundance of superb material lay ready
to hand, would be a sorry piece of logic. Undoubtedly, this very materialistic
factor fits into the argument, that " the land was made for the people, the
people for the land " ; without Greek marble, Greek artists could not have

^ See footnote to p, 10.


wrought as they did. But of far more importance is it for us to note, that the
grand forms around — the Greek mountains, and the glowing hues in which
their rocky peaks are bathed — stamped themselves, so to speak, upon the
national genius. How many generations must have drunk in the beauty of
the sunsets on the hills of Athens before a Pheidias appeared ! Had the clear-
cut outlines of Greek hills nothing to do with that exquisite sense of proportion,
of symmetry, which is so characteristic of all Greek art-work ?i Had the
radiant tints of the " violet-crowned " city no share in suggesting the brilliant
colouring wherewith the pure white marble of a Greek temple was crowned ?
This brilliant colouring — so strange to us of the North, so appropriate to the
glowing South — colouring " which threw around the Parthenon a joyous and
festive beauty " — was but a reproduction of what Greek artists saw in the
temple of nature.

(3) Finally, there is the testimony of the Greek religion, and that in three
ways : —

(a) The very essence of the Greek religion lies in the fact that it grew out
of the closest observation of nature — it was emphatically a religion which
sought to find God in nature. The testimony of Greek mythology as to this
is so overwhelming that we must leave it for consideration in its own place.
Here we would only think for a moment of the beautiful myths which bewail
the fall of the year, and express the joyfulness of the returning spring.

(b) The subject-matter of such legends is, as we know, common to almost
all nations ; but the influence of the special environment is visible in the form
which the Greek versions take. That symmetry and sense of proportion
already referred to, as displayed in Greek art, meets us also in Greek
mythology. The myths of Hellas, as Welcker {Gr. Gotterlehre, i. p. 42)
long ago pointed out, are remarkable for the absence of exaggeration, and
in their clearly-chiselled form present a marvellous contrast both to the
monstrosities produced by the Oriental imagination, and the mythologies of
the North, grotesque and shapeless as the fogs and twilight that gave them
birth. The Hellenic myths are perfectly symmetrical, and kept within bounds
like their mountain-valleys or their sea itself, running up either into sharply-
marked gulfs and bays, or, where stretching out into expanse, often limited
by a visible background of hilly coast.

(c) Lastly, a very remarkable key to Greek feeling is to be found in the
sites chosen for temples and sacred places. The Greeks, as we know, grudged
nothing, spared no cost in their religion. What was offered to the gods must
be the best of its kind ; the purest marble, the highest artistic skill, were
pressed into their service. We may, therefore, take for granted that the sites
chosen for the sanctuaries on which so much care was lavished were selected
with a purpose. And this was really the case. Wherever we find a spot
peculiarly suited by its natural majesty to impress the worshipper with the
solemnity befitting the presence of deity, there, precisely, do we find a temple
or a shrine.

Take one instance, a wild and solitary glen, lying in the heart of a moun-
tain. At its western end the valley presents the appearance of a deep, semi-
circular recess, a rocky amphitheatre, rising gradually from a stream which
runs like a silver thread in a dark ravine at its foot, up to the mountain-wall.

' " The Greek mountains have, in part, in their 'working' on the mind the effect of
Architecture" (Welcker, Oriechische Gotterlehre, i. p. 40). The whole of Welcker's section on
the influence of the Land is most admirable, and to it we are largely indebted. No better
summary has ever been written. See also Julius Hare's Guesses at Truth, i. p. 91 et seq. (ist
ed.), quoted by Welcker in loc.


This wall, which forms the background, is in one part cleft in twain from top
to bottom. The sides of the rent tower perpendicularly upwards in two
tremendous precipices, between which is a yawning chasm, one of the most
stupendous rifts in Europe. Thus, in all its savage grandeur, does the lonely
glen of Kastri lie, hidden from the outer world, between the rugged arms of
Parnassus and Cirphis, at the present day ; and thus did it lie before the eyes
of those first Hellenes. What did they think of the spot? Did they pass
it by with indifference ?

The traveller approaching some 2,300 years ago could have supplied the
answer. Suddenly, on turning a corner in the mountain-road, there would
have burst upon him a vision of unequalled splendour : the great rocky
theatre filled with the habitations of men, rising one above another, row upon
row, tier upon tier, on wall- supported terraces, from the river to the mountain.
Above, on one of the highest points, is a magnificent temple, the centre of
attraction, its marble fagade of dazzling whiteness glancing under the morning
sun in the reflected brightness of the glittering mountain-wall, which seems to
gather as in a focus the sun's rays, and flash them back upon the scene beneath,
lighting up countless objects of beauty, gods and heroes in bronze and in marble,
fountains shaded by spreading plane-trees, laurel, and olive, tliesauroi pro-
tecting national treasures committed to them. Here is a Lesche,i painted by
the hand of a Polygnotus ; here a theatre, a Stadium, both the scene of many
a stirring contest for the laurel-wreath ; there a Stoa adorned with sterner
trophies, shields, and beaks of brass, tokens of fierce conflicts waged on land
and sea. On the western ridge, with its grand view over the Amphissian
Plain beneath, bounded by the Corinthian Gulf with the Arcadian Cyllene in
the distance, is the meeting-place of the Amphictyonig League ; on the east
is a group of temples. In the background, towering above the rock-hewn .
fountain, Castalia, at their base, rise the two mountain peaks, Nauplia and
Hyampeia, the giant guardians of the sanctuary, dedicated to the presiding
deities of the place, Apollo and Dionysus, the Summer and the Winter-Sun.

Such was Delphi, rocky Pytho, the treasure-house of the archer, Phoebus
Apollo, as it lay in the olden time, the " centre " of the then civilised world
(Paus., X.; Plut., de Pythice orac. ; Leake, Northern Greece^ ii. p. 550 et seq.\
Bursian, op. cit., i. p. ijo et seq.).

Was there no " eye " or appreciation of natural grandeur displayed in the
selection of the site? Take away the rocky amphitheatre, the gleaming
Phsedriades, the awe and seclusion lent by the encircling mountain-walls ; place
the temple in a plain, among the ordinary haunts of men — and, notwithstand-
ing its own magnificence, its countless treasures of art, the illusion would be
gone. The Hellenes knew this better than either you or I.

Time would fail to enlarge on other and similar instances which rise to
mind : the lonely shrine of Apollo the Helper, amid the mountains at Bassse,
with its mossy oaks and its magnificent outlook over the whole of Southern
Peloponnesus and the sea ; the valley of Olympia, with its coronet of low,
encircling hills ; the stern Nemean Valley, with the altar-hill of Apesas ; the
dark glen of Lebadeia, with its mysterious subterranean waters ; the " queenly"
rock of the Athenian Acropolis, with its group of temples, crowned by silvery
haze. Enough has been said to show that the Hellenes had, to say the least,
quite as keen an appreciation of scenic effect, and the artistic possibilities
afforded by nature, as any of their modern critics. *

Connecting now the threefold link of evidence to be found in Literature,
Art, and Religion, we cannot fail to see that, not only did the land answer

1 A sort of club-house or lounge.


every requirement of those who were destined to be experimenters in the
domain of the beautiful, but that these experimenters responded to its
influence. Granted that the root of the matter lay within themselves, the root,
Creative Energy, was nourished and strengthened by what it fed upon, Natural
Beauty. " A grand nature elevates, a beautiful nature refines " (Welcker).
Those who think otherwise would have us believe that the Hellenes, if their
lot had been cast, say, amid the dreary monotony of the Russian steppes, would
still have produced a mythology full of poetry, and erected a Parthenon.

The truth is, that the Hellene drank in natural beauty as he breathed the
common air, and would probably have considered it as little necessary to rhap-
sodize over the one as over the other. The instinct to seize and appropriate
the beautiful was as innate in him as was the instinct to reproduce what he
thus appropriated ; but the receptive and the creative instincts operated, like
all laws, both in the natural and the spiritual world, in their own way. " One
Spirit — diversities of operations." Amongst ourselves, the beauty of nature
impels one man to pour out his thoughts on paper ; another, to reproduce
them on canvas. The Greek, in all the splendid . audacity of the spring-time
of Art embodied his, above all, in marble ; and well it is for us moderns that
he chose precisely this mode of experimenting.

To sum up: What shall we say then to these things? If we find a land
marvellously adapted to the people destined to inhabit it : —

1. A land, which shielded its people when as yet, in their infant days,

they could not shield themselves.

2. A land, which provided that each race among the people should have

fair play and full scope for its own individuality.

3. A land, which was so placed that its people might have free intercourse

with the older civilisation, and little intercourse with barbarism.

4. A land, which offered the conditions of climate best fitted to develop

energy of character.

5. A land, whose natural resources were such as to encourage enterprise

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