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

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grain-giving earth ; the people round Cecropia, the Acropolis of the central
plain (the later Athens), worshipped Athena (the Dew-giver) ; and the dwellers
in the third plain, the district of Marathon in the north-east, formed them-
selves into a Tetrapolis, or league of four cities, devoted to Heracles and
Apollo, and later to Dionysus.

It is rather surprising, at first sight, to find the Athenians claiming another
JJy'inann, a second serpent-bodied ancestor, Erichthonius or Erechtheus. The
anomaly is explained by the later myth which made Cecrops an Egyptian — a
myth which, like that of the Egyptian origin of Danaus in Argos, arose at the
time when resemblances between the myths of Egypt and those of Greece began
to be traced. It then became necessary to have a native genius, about whose
Attic birth there could be no doubt, and this native genius is represented by
Erichthonius — Erechtheus — originally one and the same individual, but separated
by later myth-makers into two personalities — Erichthonius the grandfather,
Erechtheus the grandson.

Both are " doubles " of Cecrops, representatives of Agriculture, and devoted
to the cult of Athena. " Erichthonius" has been interpreted as " Rich land"
(G. Curtius), and the saga makes a brother of Erechtheus, " Butes," the
Herdsman, the inventor of the art of guiding the plough and driving oxen.
Erechtheus is said to have been brought up by Athena in her temple of the
Acropolis ; he founded in her honour the Panathenaic Festival, believed to be,
with the Eleusinian, the oldest in Greece. The temple of the Erechtheium,
erected on the Acropolis by the Athenians to their serpent-bodied ancestor, was
supposed to be watched over by a guardian serpent, for whom was placed every
month in historic times a honey-cake.

With Erechtheus also is connected the saga of the " Eleusinian War," a
tradition which developed more and more, and assumed ever grander proportions.
Into the western plain of Eleusis, the most fertile part of Attica, according to the
saga, a tribe of the " Thracians," whom we saw settled on the slopes of Helicon,
had penetrated, and it was not until after a prolonged struggle, which the
tradition centred in the persons of Erechtheus of Athens and Eumolpus of


Eleusis, that the western plain submitted to the central. Victory over the
former could only be obtained by a voluntary sacrifice — the youngest daughter
of Erechtheus offered herself as the victim. On her death her sisters, who
could not live without her, slew themselves, and thus the whole family of the
Erechthida3 came to an end, martyred in the cause of the Fatherland.

As we have seen, the presence of "Thracians" in Eleusis is extremely
doubtful. The story by which Erechtheus subdued Eumolpus, the " Sweet
Singer " of Eleusis, may have originated in the religious rivalry between the
agriculturists in the central plain under the protection of Athena, and those in
the western plain under that of Demeter.

That a genuine historic kernel lies at the root of the story is, however,
borne out by the numerous remains of walls and towers on the hill-chain
(^galeos) which divides the two plains ; this was apparently the ancient Attic
boundary, and may have been the scene of many a battle. The independence
of Eleusis in early days may also be inferred from the power they possessed in
historic times — the direction of the great Temple of Demeter and Persephone,
and the right of coining money.

The earliest names in the first group of sagas were increased by later
additions — Ogyges (who also appears in Boeotia), a representative of the
Deluge ; Actaeus, of Attica ^ itself ; Cranaus, of the rocky soil of the land
(hence Herodotus calls the first Athenians Cranai) ; Amphictyon, of political
renown ; further, Pandion and Ion.

Returning, however, to the genuine nucleus, we can see that the legends of
Cecrops and Erichthonius, the genii of Harvest and Good Land, must have
sprung up amongst an agricultural people, and both, as we have seen, are
devoted to Athena. The daughter of Cecrops, the three Dew-sisters —
Pandrosus, the All-moistening, Herse, the Dew, and Aglaurus, the Glistening —
are the first priestesses of the goddess, herself the Dew-giver, and consequently
in a climate such as that of the Athenian plain, the Grain-giver.

2. Another element is, however, presently introduced into the old saga. A
rival to Athena, goddess of Agriculture, appears in the shape of Poseidon,
Lord of the Sea, and Cecrops is called upon to be umpire in the dispute as to
which has the better right to the land and the homage of its people. He
decides in favour of Athena, pronouncing her gift to Attica of the olive-tree a
more valuable one than that of Poseidon, the sea or the horse, the emblem of
the galloping waves.

According to a later version of the story, in which the twelve Olympic gods
themselves adjudicate upon the matter, Cecrops appears before them, and
argues that the sea is open to all, but that Athena had given the olive specially
to Attica {cf. p. 34), hence that the people of Attica were bound specially to
honour her and cultivate the land. The cultivation of the soil was, indeed,
long regarded by the Athenians as their special mission ; and, as we know, this
fixed idea proved later an obstacle in the way of Themistocles and his warlike

This new element in the old sagas — the contest between land and sea —
pointing to the infusion of a new element into the old agricultural Pelasgic
life, centres round the names of -^geus and Theseus, ^geus is probably a
personification of Poseidon himself, i.e. the ^gean Sea ; Theseus, like Minyas,
the hero-ancestor of the Minyse (p. 137) is his son. Theseus in the saga comes
from Troezen, the " fair-faced," stronghold of the lonians in the earliest as in
later times. He is therefore held to be a representative of the race and of

1 From akte, " a peninsula," the rocky coast over which the waves break.


the settlement in Attica, the land of Athena, of the lonians, the people of

The saga associates this occurrence with Theseus, as the national hero, but
" Theseus " is a comparatively late name ; and if such an invasion took place,
it must have been in very early times, for, as we know, the people of Attica
imagined their land to have been always left undisturbed amidst the migra-
tions of the tribes. Certainly there seems to have been a close bond of union
between Athens and Troezen in historic times — both possessed the saga of a
dispute between Poseidon and Athena about their respective lands ; the oldest
coins of Troezen bore the Athena head on the one side, the trident of the sea-
king on the other ; it was in Troezen that many Athenian families took refuge
during the Persian War.

If Theseus himself, however, as the Ionian of Troezen, points to one invasion
of Attica, the story of his heroic deeds would seem to presuppose another.
Theseus conquers the Amazons who have encamped on Areiopagus ; he slays the
fire-breathing bull of Marathon ; he overcomes the Minotaur, the man-devour-
ing bull of Crete, and thereby delivers the people of Attica from the tribute
of children demanded by the monster and levied by Minos, King of Crete.

Who is meant by " Minos," and what the bondage was under which the
Pelasgian inhabitants of Attica, tillers of the soil and goatherds, groaned until
set free by Theseus, type of the energetic seafaring lonians, we shall find out

Meantime let us note that " Theseus," as the national hero, is the embodi-
ment of all that is good and noble in the Athenian character. It is he, as
Thucydides tells us, who accomplishes that great work, the union of the twelve
Attic communes into one State, whose centre is Athens, where was henceforth
the one council for the administration of the affairs of the whole land, and the
one prytaneium or town-hall, with its sacred hestia, the hearth of the great
family of the State. All this Theseus is represented as doing (and this is an
intensely characteristic feature) — not by the strong hand of force, but — by the
aid of Peitho, " persuasion," the might of reason and eloquence.

Theseus has often been compared to Heracles, but the comparison is hardly
to the point. It is not the struggle with nature (personified in Heracles)
that Theseus represents so much as the struggle with circumstance. He thus
stands forth as the ideal of the Athenians themselves in their striving after
freedom, independence, and unity, and in this sense he was developed more
and more by later writers. In the hands of Sophocles he becomes the chival-
rous protector of the weak, in those of Euripides he is a thorough democrat,
whilst the masses of the people knew him in both characters, for his temple
was an asylum for fugitive slaves.

To sum up, the first group of Attic sagas, in the names of Cecrops and
Erechtheus, symbolises the first stage of Attic life, the Pelasgian stage, which
witnessed the beginnings of agriculture and of settled city life. ,

The second group, under the names of ^geus (Poseidon) and Theseus,
gathers together traditions early and late ; indicates the presence amid the
Pelasgians of a new race-element, the Ionian, with the collateral ideas of the
development of navigation and of a true political life.

If, again, the original Attic sagas are themselves somewhat meagre, we
must not forget that it was Attic genius which gave to many of the sagas of
the other people of Hellas that imperishable beauty which has preserved them
to our day. What charm or interest would the stories of CEdipus and Antigone,
of Iphigeneia and Medea possess for us now, but for the form into which they
were thrown by the gre^t tragic writers of Athens ?


Finally, we may not overlook another fact of the utmost importance, viz.,
that the special religions of Attica, those of Athena and Demeter, are the
purest and most beautiful of Hellas. At Eleusis grew up that cult of the two
goddesses — Demeter and Core, the mother and the daughter — which was
destined to have so profound an influence not only on Greece, but on the whole
ancient world — that most beautiful of the Nature cults, which, more than
any other of the old religions, satisfied to some extent the longings of human
souls, and prepared the way among the Gentiles for a higher and a truer

The further development of the saga of Theseus begins, as we have hinted,
with the development of the Athenian people. Here, therefore, we leave
them. We leave them to struggle into the consciousness of national life, of
their own powers, of all that awaited them — to find out by actual experiment
how wondrously in every detail their land corresponded to their needs. Surely,
when we reflect on its maritime position, its harbours, its stores of finest
marble, of plastic clay, its invigorating breezes, its pure air and genial sun-
shine, we must say once more — hundreds of times as it has been said before —
never was land so suited to its people, never were people so suited to their
land, as Attica to the Athenians, the Athenians to Attica.


As we saw in our last chapters, Pelasgi from the Great Plain had settled
both in Boeotia and in Attica. We must now follow the fortunes of other
bands of the same race, who, like the lonians, went still farther south, and
crossed the isthmus into Peloponnesus, Some of these Pelasgian wanderers
penetrated into the great mountain-land in the centre of the peninsula — the
Switzerland of Greece — Arcadia. Here, pent up among their hills, they
speedily forgot the outer world and their migration therefrom ; and here we
may leave them— to develop into numerous tribes of brave and hardy moun-
taineers, with all the virtues and all the failings incident to their secluded
life (see ante, p. 6). As experimenters, the Arcadians do not concern us at

Leaving also another band to develop under the name of " Achaeans " in
the valley of the Eurotas, we now direct our attention to a third company of
Pelasgi, who found their way into the hill-girt easterly plain of Peloponnesus,
the Plain of Argos.

This plain, which became, as we shall presently see, a famous centre of
legendary history, is really, like so many of the Greek plains, a deep basin
encircled by mountains on all sides except the south, where it is open to the
sea. In bygone ages the " plain" must have been a bay, the innermost re-
cesses of the Gulf of Argos, penetrating far into the land. In progress of time
the bay gradually became filled up by the earthy deposits brought down from
the hills by the torrents and rivers, the great land-builders of Greece,^ and
thus, formed by layer upon layer of detritus, the plain appeared. To this, its
watery origin, the low, swampy ground on the coast, the " egg-shell of its
birth," still bears witness ; and to it may perhaps be attributed also the saga
of the contest between Poseidon and Hera for the possession of Argos.
Poseidon is worsted — i.e. the sea recedes, and Hera becomes the tutelary deity
of the land, with the further consequence that Poseidon takes his revenge by

^ See Part I., '' Rivers as land-builders," antey p. 59.


drying up its rivers, and the plain becomes the " thii-sty Argos " of Homer and
of history.

The earliest inhabitants of the plain of whom we have any record are, as
stated above, the ubiquitous Pelasgi. Here, in the sunny, fertile, hill-protected
district — to which they gave the name peculiar to the race, Argos — they
pitched their tents, at the foot of a gigantic rock (the eastern part of Lycone, a
spur running out from Artemisium) which stands above the plain to a height
of nearly 1000 feet. This became, again, their Larissa, or citadel — like
Ephyra, the Watch-tower, a safe refuge in times of danger — and round this
stately acropolis grew up the settlement which developed later into the historic
city of Argos.

Round the Larissa grew up also in time a cycle of sagas. Naught knew
the authors of these of any old Thessalian, much less of any old Aryan, home.
Like their Arcadian bi'ethren, they believed themselves to be Autochthones ;
they imagined themselves to have sprung up in the land. Later, the Argives
of history claimed to be the oldest of the Hellenes — an assumption in which
they were supported by the fact that the historical recollections of the Hellenes
reached no further back than " ancient Argos." The sagas of Argos divide
themselves naturally into three groups or periods: —

1 . Here first grew up the saga of Phoroneus, the Urkonig, the primaeval
king of the land, son of the Inachus, its chief river — hence also its great
land-builder and fertiliser — and the nymph Melia, the Ash — a genealogy
pointing to that old belief according to which man is the offspring of a tree.^
Phoroneus — from his name (?.e., hearer) the representative of the productive
soil of the land — is, therefore, according to Argive tradition, not only the first
king, but the first man ; and not only so, but he is the first introducer of
civilisation, the bringer of fire (like Prometheus), ^ and the founder of the
special cult of the land, the worship of Hera on Mount Euboea. His wife is
called sometimes Kerdo (the prudent, she who gains), sometimes Telodike (the
spreader of justice), sometimes Peitho (the power of persuasion) — all names,
as Preller points out, indicative of new features in the development of settled
order and intercourse among citizens. The son of Phoroneus is that Apis, from
whom some writers supposed Peloponnesus to have taken its name of Apia.^

Finally, we note in this first cycle of Argive sagas that a daughter of the
old river-god Inachus, is lo (the Moon), that pitiful heroine, whose wrongs,
sufferings, wanderings, and final arrival in Egypt play so important a part in
Greek mythology. Let us note also that this same lo, under the name of
Kallithyia (the lovely enthusiast) figures, as the first of the Priestesses of
Hera in that long list which was used by the Greek chronologers, and we
shall have some idea (as observed at the outset) how the oldest Greek
" history " was written.

2. In the second group of sagas we meet with the people of the plain at
a higher level of civilisation — they are no longer called Pelasgi but Danaans
— that is, the people of Danaus, the Giver, the man who taught them how to
dig wells, how to irrigate the land, and, by supplying her lack of moisture,
induce Mother Earth to give up her fruits. The prime necessity of irrigation
in a land like " thirsty Argos," and the relation of the Danaids, the fifty
daughters of Danaus, to the springs and rivers of the land, we have already
pointed out (see ante, pp. 58, 59). Danaus, however, is not only the first well-

^ See paragraph 1 1 on the "Origin of the Human Race," Hellas p. 91.

2 Pott derives Phoroneus from phero — to bear. Kulm compares the name with the Indian
Bhuranya — the down-rushing, i.e. the lightning.
^ See, however, ante, footnote to p. 31.


digger, but the first builder of the city of Argos, the hestia or *' sacred hearth "
of which had been founded by Phoroneus.^

In the saga, moreover, he figures as an Egyptian, the descendant of lo,
and although this part of the story is an addition of later times, the whole
points to the infusion of another element — an element of progress — into the
old Pelasgian life. Homer calls the people of Argos indifferently Danaans
and Achseans.

3. The next saga, that of Proetus, gives even more unmistakable evidence
of progress. This evidence is still before our eyes.

Climbing to the top of the Larissa, and looking across the Inachus, we see,
rising in the south-east of the plain, a group of small flat hills, originally islands
in the old sea-floor. On the most westerly of these, low and easily accessible,
are the remains of a very ancient fortress, the " well-walled Tiryns" of Homer
— the first city in the plain, fortified by art, not like the Larissa on the height,
defended by nature — some twenty-five feet thick, built of stones so enormous
that, as Pausanias says (with some exaggeration truly), " a team of mules
could scarcely move one of them," the mighty walls of Tiryns have defied the
storms of the ages.

Men have come — Pelasgians, Phoenicians, Lycians, Achaeans, Dorians,
Romans, the Frank and the Turk — and men have gone, but the old walls of
Tiryns bid fair to hold on for ever.

The question naturally arises. Who built these walls ? The later Greeks
themselves did not believe them to have been the work of their ancestors.
Walls so stupendous could only have been reared by daemonic agency.

Hence the saga : Proetus is a descendant of Danaus, driven from Argos by
his brother Acrisius, he takes refuge in Lycia, where he is hospitably received,
and returns triumphantly to his birth-land with a band of warlike Lycians,
who restore him to his rights. Acrisius, " the king of the heights," retains,
indeed, Argos and the soaring Larissa ; but for Proetus, " the Eager-for-War,"
Lycian Cyclopes (one-eyed daemons) build the well-walled city of Tiryns, on
the eastern side of the Inachus. So then, according to the story, the great
fortress of Tiryns was erected by foreign help to defend the brother in the
plain from the brother on the height. Is there a grain of truth here ? We
shall examine the question presently.

Meanwhile, to return to the old city of Argos, it now appears as the centre
of the most famous group of sagas belonging to this second cycle — those con-
nected with the great Sun-hero and slayer of the Powers of Night, Perseus,
the story of whose mother, Danae, cast adrift on the sea with her babe by her
cruel father, Acrisius, has been so touchingly told by Simonides. ' Into the
wondrous adventures of this altogether mythical hero, we cannot enter here.
Suffice it, that Eastern elements mingle abundantly with them — that Perseus
rescues from the dragon of Darkness an Ethiopian princess, whom he marries ;
that their child is Perseus, the founder of the Persian royal dynasty, a " fact"
acknowledged by Xerxes ; that Perseus, on his return to his native land, un-
wittingly kills his grandfather, Acrisius ; that he can no longer dwell in the
city of the slain, and consequently exchanges Argos with his cousin, a son of
Proetus, for Tiryns ; that, finally, he builds (again with the help of Lycian
Cyclopes), the third great city of the plain, Mycenae, and becomes the founder
of the Perseid royal house, from whom there springs another Sun-hero, the
greatest of all — Heracles.

Some writers represent the latter as having been born at Tiryns — the

^ For the importance of the " sacred hearth " to a city, see Hellas under '* Hestia," p. 163.


mightiest of heroes within the mightiest of walls. This mistake, however, is
not one which the oldest sagas could fall into. Like the god of Light, Apollo
himself, whose mother is Leto, the dark Night, and who struggles into life
with difficulty ; and, like his prototype Perseus, who is also born in darkness
underground, and encounters misfortune as soon as he breathes, so Heracles'
the great Hellenic example of energy overcoming danger and difficulty, is born
an exile, at Thebes, on (Eta.

As the son of an elder branch of the Perseid family, Heracles should him-
self have succeeded to the throne of Mycenae instead of Eurystheus, the weak-
minded cousin whom he serves. Eurystheus, however, will not acknowledge
even the claim of Hyllus, the son of Heracles, and is slain by him in battle ;
whereupon the sceptre of Mycenae is seized by Atreus, member of an alien
race, known later as that of the Pelopidae.

Such, in brief, is the early legendary history of Argos. Useless for pur-
poses of real history as are the details of such traditions — details in which, as
already observed, the Moon and two Sun-heroes figure as historical personages
— it is yet necessary that we should make ourselves acquainted with them, for
the descent of the mythical Heracles from the no less mythical Perseus is the
pivot on which by tradition the state of affairs in historical Greece is made to
turn. It was the claim of certain individuals to be the genuine descendants
of Heracles, and therefore the representatives of the Perseids, the real royal
line of Argos as opposed to the descendants of Atreus and his son Agamemnon,
the representatives of the Pelopids, or usurpers in Argos, which led to the
result called the Return of the Herakleids or the Dorian Invasion of Pelopon-
nesus, an event which is generally regarded as in itself an historical fact —
whatever in reality may have been its cause.

Who then, is this Atreus, the usurper, the founder of the new lines of
rulers in Mycenae? According to later sagas, he is the son of Pelops, who,
again, is the son of Tantalus, King of Lydia, that ancient evil-doer who, in the
Odyssey, is seen expiating his wicked deeds in the lower world. But Homer
knows nothing of Pelops ; he only speaks of Atreus and the Atridae, his sons
Agamemnon and Menelaus. Still less does Homer know anything of the
fearful crimes of the race, or the " doom " hanging over it. All this was
invented at a later date.

According to another tradition, Atreus was the uncle of the weak Eurys-
theus. As Thucydides tells us, on the death of the latter, " because he seemed
a valiant man, he received, with the consent of the people, lordship over
Mycenae and all that belonged to Eurystheus."

Atreus then took up his abode at Mycenae, the third city of the plain,
whose mighty walls still stand, like those of Tiryns, to bear witness to the
power of their builders. Great interest centres round the old feudal strong-
hold, round which circle the third group of the legends of Argos. From it
comes forth Agamemnon, shepherd of the host, clad in his flashing bronze,
and stands in the national sanctuary, the Heraeum, on the slopes of Euboea, to
administer the oath of fealty to the princes, who join the league against Troy,
as Homer tells us he stood in later days in the Plain of the Scamander —
*' with head and eyes like to Zeus " — a veritable king of men, marshalling the
ranks of the mail-clad Achaeans. And in this dark fortress grows up the sweet
bud Iphigeneia, lured away to be the bride of Death ; in it her lady-mother
Clytaemnestra nurses her terrible vengeance, in it she meets requital at the
hand of her son Orestes. In this same dark mountain-fortress we have, in

Online LibraryE. E G.The makers of Hellas: a critical inquiry into the philosophy and religion of ancient Greece → online text (page 28 of 112)