Lewis Richard Farnell.

The higher aspects of Greek religion. Lectures delivered at Oxford and in London in April and May 1911 online

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Online LibraryLewis Richard FarnellThe higher aspects of Greek religion. Lectures delivered at Oxford and in London in April and May 1911 → online text (page 1 of 11)
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L. R. FARNELL, D.Litt.






Lecture I


Greek religion mainly a social-political system, 1. In its earliest
period a "theistic" creed, that is, a worship of personal individual
deities, ethical personalities rather than mere nature forces, 2.
Anthropomorphism its predominant bias, 2-3. Yet preserving many
primitive features of " animism " or " animatism," 3-5. Its progress
gradual without violent break with its distant past, 5-6. The ele-
ment of magic fused with the religion but not predominant, 6-7.
Hellenism and Hellenic religion a blend of two ethnic strains, one
North-Aryan, the other Mediterranean, mainly Minoan-Mycenaean,
7-9. Criteria by which we can distinguish the various influences of
these two, 9-1 6. The value of Homeric evidence, 18-20. Sum-
mary of results, 21-24.

Lecture II


The earliest type of family in Hellenic society patrilinear, 25-27.
Earliest religious phenomena the cult of the hearth and of Zeus
the God of the household, 27-30. Marriage a religious ceremony,
consecrated to Zeus and Hera, in some sense a sacrament or
mystery, 30-32. Its connection with the agricultural life, 32-34.
Dedication of the bride to the tutelary hero or divinity, 34-35.


Marriage a social-religious duty, 35-36. The ethics of the family,
36-37. Adultery and certain sexual offences a social-religious
wrong ; but no moral exaltation of virginity, 38-43. Family-purity
maintained by the Erinyes but mainly by the higher deities, 39-41.
The high sense of family duty the master-work of Greek religion,
43-45. Philosophic ethics reflecting popular cult, 45-47.

Lecture III


Sanctity of the father, 48-50. The power and moral effects of the
Curse, 50-53. Influence of family-religion on the position of the
slave, religious method of manumission, 54-56. The family a unit
of the clan or tribe, 58. The genos and phratria, even the local
organisation of the deme, based on the idea of kinship and on the
cults of the deities of kinship and ancestral heroes, 58-61. Object
of this religion to preserve civic purity of blood, 62. Greek religion
in relation to the Polls, 63-64. The Greek State sometimes of
religious origin, 64-65. The city regarded as a single family, hence
the domestic character of many civic cults, 65-68. The high Gods
political powers, especially Zeus, Apollo, and Athena, 68-69. Greek
religion unique in respect of its political character, 69-71. The
State-deity sometimes the physical ancestor, 71-72.

Lecture IV


Worship confined to citizens, the religious tone genial rather than
profoundly reverential, 73-74. Importance of the idea of kinship
with the deity, 75-76. Clan morality implies collective responsi-
bility and vicarious human sacrifice, 76-78. Religious aspect of civic
duties, courage, patriotism, 78-83. The alien invader a pollution
to the temples, 83-84. Religious origins of the laws concerning
homicide, 84-91.


Lecture V


Beginnings of a national religion in the Homeric period, 92-93.
Cult of Zeus Panhellenios, 94-95. The early Amphictyonies, the
Delphic Oracle, 96-99. Expansion of early Greek morality, 98-99.
Universal moral force of the oath, 99-100. The rights of aliens,
100-102. Duties of hospitality, 102-103. Religious sanction of
friendship, 103-104. Humanism in religion^ readiness to recognise
native gods in alien forms of divinity, 104-106. Tolerance and the
absence of religious wars, 106-107. The higher divine attributes,
107-124. The idea of divine vengeance early associated with the
idea of divine mercy, 107-115. The vindictive theory challenged
by poets and philosophers, 1 14-1 1 5. Ethical theory of punishment
connected with the doctrine of the perfect goodness of God,
114-116. The problem of evil, 115-116. Association of religion
with art and science, 116-124.

Lecture VI


Development of the individual conscience, 125-127. Question of
the personal vitality of Greek religion, 127-134. The growth of
the idea of purity as a religious ideal, 134-136. The union of
the mortal with the divine, 136-137. The ritual of the sacra-
ment, 136-137. The value of the mysteries, 137-140. Religion
becoming more inward and more spiritual, 141-147. Spread of
individualism and humanitarianism, 147-150.




There are many salient points of contrast that may

guide our classification of religions ; but none is more

significant than that which strikes us at first glance in

comparing early Hellenic polytheism with, for instance,

early Christianity. We have, in the first, a religion

that is pre-eminently social-political — one, that is, in

which man's attachment to the divine powers is rooted

in his corporate fife, in the economy of the household,

the tribe, the city ; in the second, one whose objective

or primary concern is the personal individual soul

in its spiritual and mystic relations with God.

In selecting, then, the higher social aspects of

Greek polytheism as the main subject of this course,

I shall not be presenting the whole picture, indeed,

but at least the dominant features of this religion,

and an aspect which occasionally runs risk of being

ignored by some of our English anthropologists. In

my concluding lecture I shall give a short estimate

of the higher personal, as distinct from the purely

1 1


social, religion of the Hellenes; for the subject is of
great interest in itself, and in the study of certain
departments of religious morality the one essentially
involves the other.

As Greek religion is unusually complex, any partial
statement of it is apt to be misleading unless accom-
panied by clear comprehension of the whole. For
this years of study are necessary ; but it may assist
the understanding of this special subject that I am
going to treat, if I preface it by an outline sketch
of the general phenomena and of the conclusions at
which I have arrived concerning them.

Greek rehgion is presented to us by its various
records mainly as a polytheism of personal divinities,
grouped in certain family relationships around and
under a supreme god. Theoretically the chief divinity
is male in sky, earth, and sea, but in certain localities
the goddess-cult is more powerful. The higher beings
are rarely recognisable as personifications of physical
forces of nature, and it is only of a very few of them
that a nature-origin can be posited or proved; and
though many of them have special departments of
nature for their peculiar concern, they are chiefly to
be regarded as ethical and intellectual personalities,
friendly on the whole to man and powerful to aid in
all that concerns his physical and social life. These
elements in Greek religion belong to theism, and,
from the social and political point of view, these are
by far the most important. And in these theistic crea-
tions of the Hellene the dominant impulse was that
which we call anthropomorphism, a mode of feehng


and thought to which the average Greek tempera-
ment was so attracted that both the artistic and
the religious history of the race were mainly deter-
mined by it. For instance, it explains the compara-
tive absence of mysticism in this religion and the
strong bias towards hero-cult which can be traced
from the pre-Homeric age onwards. It equally ex-
plains the iconic or idolatrous impulse which has left
so deep an imprint upon pre-Christian Hellenism and
on the Greek Christian Church.

But we must also reckon with the lower products
and phenomena which it has been the chief function
of modern anthropology to explore and explain.
Besides the worship of these glorified anthropomor-
phic beings called " theoi," we have to deal with facts
that seem to point to direct worship, or at least the
respectful tendance, of animals, the ritual of certain
localities prescribing an offering, for instance, to the
flies, to the wolves, or to a pig. And one of the high
divinities might at times be imagined as incarnate in
the animal, Apollo possibly in the wolf, Poseidon in
the horse, Dionysos in the bull and goat. We may
regard these beliefs and practices as the deposit of
an age, not indeed of pure theriomorphism — for it is
very doubtful if such ever existed in the history of
religions — but of one when the anthropomorphic
imagination was unstable and the divinity might be
conceived as embodied now in human now in animal
form. Again, though the Greek imagination tended
forcibly towards the concrete and definite, it admitted
the apprehension of vaguer, more inchoate, forms of


nameless daimones or " theoi," such as those who pre-
side over birth — Fei/eTuXXtSe?, KwXiaSe? — or over the
lower world with its associations of death and of the
curse and the miasma of bloodshed, the 'Epivve<;,
IT/DaftSifcat, Geol MeuXiXiOL ; such figures showing a
far less degree of anthropomorphic personification
than the robust personages of the higher polytheism,
who were as vividly realised as are the divine figures
of modern Mediterranean rehgion.

But, furthermore, certain objects of Greek cult
remained outside the region of that which we call
personal theism ; and we have records or hints of
direct worship being offered to the thunder or the
thunder-stone, the winds, the rivers and streams, and
with greater earnestness and profit to the holy
hearth of the house. And while the same anthropo-
morphic bias which succeeded in evolving or detach-
ing the river-god or nymph from the element gave
the stimulus to a religious art the most beautiful the
world has seen, yet certain aniconic sacred things
that we may call fetishes — the hewn stock or pillar,
the meteorite, the axe — continued to appeal to the
religious awe both of individuals and states from the
earliest to the latest periods of this polytheism.

These diverse phenomena may be classified under
various categories for which the science of religions
has invented technical terms. The salient and pre-
dominant portion of Hellenic worship and belief may
be called theism, which is based on the perception of
concrete individual deities ; where we find a nature-
object, wind, water, or thunder, revered as if endowed


with a soul, we term this mental process animism, a
term, however, only rarely applicable to the Greek
phenomena apart from the worship of the dead,
applicable, for instance, to the Attic cult of the
Tritopatores, who appear to have been regarded
partly as ancestral ghosts, partly as wind-powers;
thirdly, where we find the object worshipped in
and for itself as sentient and animate, a thunder-
stone, moving water, a blazing hearth, we should
describe the religious consciousness as animatism
rather than animism, which imphes the definite
conception of souls or spirits.

It is a marked feature of the evolution of Greek
religion that the lower and more embryonic forms of
faith survive through the ages by the side of the
higher and more developed. This was natural,
because in its history there were no cataclysms, no
violent spiritual revolutions breaking away with the
past and endeavouring to obliterate it. The priest-
hood was conservative and did not champion spiritual
or intellectual reform. At times a '' prophet "
emerges, but not with the significance or the mission
of an Isaiah : the prophet Epimenides of Crete was ^
merely the propagator of an elaborate system of
purification ; the Orphic-Pythagorean sectaries who
were the first missionaries in Hellas were chiefly
concerned with preaching a new theory and system
for the posthumous salvation of the soul ; and, while
their theology contained in it many germs of higher
thought, it was more deeply rooted in savagery than
the ordinary Hellenic. Progress there certainly was


through the slow course of centuries, but it was
gradual and half-unconscious ; crude and savage
practices gradually fell into desuetude or retained
only a faint semblance of life. No doubt philosophy
contributed much to this progress, though indirectly ;
the philosophic protest was more usually directed
against the immoralities of mythology than against
the prevailing forms of worship and the structure of
the polytheism. In any case, this protest, of what-
ever avail it was, forms part of the higher history of
Hellenic religious thought.

Finally, the slightest general sketch of this poly-
theism must not omit to include the element of
magic, a practice which some writers regard as
antagonistic to real religion and which certainly
impHes a different relation between man and God
from that assumed by worship and prayer, but which
nevertheless tends to maintain itself openly or dis-
guised in much of the higher ritual of the nations.
Thus the Greek rites of sacrifice, prayer, and hymn
were in the main religion, pure and simple ; but
the invocation of the potent names of the divinity
was at one time supposed no doubt to have a
magic power of compulsion. The newly discovered
hymn of the Kouretes^ reveals the youthful priests
"leaping" for the good of the fields and the crops,
and the young god, Zeus Kovpo^, is entreated or
commanded to '' leap " with them— that is, to prac-
tise the same magic for the land. Yet Greek
religion early rose high above the magic level, and

1 Vide Annual of the British School at Athens, 19O8-I909, p. 345.


the evils of magic-practices, familiar to us in the
record of other societies, are not clearly attested of
early Greece. We do not hear of witch-finders and
homicidal sorcerers. Magic tablets, by means of
which the life of a person was devoted to destruction
by nailing down his name, the " defixionum tabellse," ^
are not found before the fifth century at the earliest,
and we have reason to suppose that Orphic influences
emanating from a religion originally non- Hellenic
suggested their use ; and some of them in the fourth
and third centuries bear the form of a religious prayer
merely. In a fifth-century inscription containing the
commination service of Teos," we have the first proof
that magic was feared as a public danger : " Whoso-
ever maketh baneful drugs against the Teians,
whether against individuals or the whole people, may
he perish, both he and his offspring " ; and Plato,^ in
his Laws, frames certain legislation against those who
endeavour to injure others by spells and invocations,
concerning the efficacy of which the philosopher in
his mental decay is not able to make up his mind.
But it was mainly in the Greeco-Roman period, under
the influence of the Oriental spirit and in combination
with the daimonistic theory of later theosophy, that
magic assumed formidable dimensions and became a
potent cause of intellectual decline.

These various strains in this complex polytheism
afford various problems to the historian of origins,

1 Jevons' Transactions of Coiigress of History of Religions, I9O8,
vol. ii. p. 131.

2 Roehl, Inscr. Grcec. Antiq,, 497 : vide Miss Harrison, Prolegomena,
p. 142. 3 p. 932 E-933 E.


and suggest many difficult questions concerning the
ethnology and the early formative factors of Greek
religion. As the student is constantly being called
upon to adjust himself in regard to these speculations
concerning origin and race, a brief statement of
my own views may serve to clear the ground on
which I may afterwards expose the higher aspects of
the religion. No ethnologist of repute will now
dispute the theorem that the historic Hellenic peoples
were the product of a fusion between certain tribes
coming from the North, " Aryan " in speech and
social system, and an indigenous Mediterranean stock
with whom they intermingled as conquerors or by
peaceful intermarriage. And this latter race we now
know, thanks to the discoveries in Crete, Mycense, and
elsewhere, to have been one of high culture in respect
of the arts and the other departments of social life.
Though the northern immigrants may have tempor-
arily interrupted and impaired the culture, we may be
sure that they did not destroy or uproot the indigenous
religion. A clear comprehension, then, of this latter
is as necessary for the solution of the Hellenic
problem as is a knowledge of the religious rites and
personalities that the Aryan immigrants brought with
them from the North. At present we are far from
being completely informed on either of tliese sides ; but
the discoveries and researches of Sir Arthur Evans and
others,^ on the soil of Crete and other centres of the

1 Fide A. Evans' ^' Mycengean Tree- and Pillar-cult/' in Journ.
Hellen. Studies, 1901. R. Burrows, The Discoveries in Crete, pp. 31-
32, 112-116, 127-128.


Minoan- Mycenaean culture, have established certain
facts of great importance for our religious problem,
and we can to some extent reconstruct the features
of the Mediterranean religion that the Northerners
found established in the Southern Greek lands.

The most striking figure in the Minoan worship
was a great goddess, conceived mainly as a mother
but here and there also as virginal, imagined as a
mountain goddess, whose familiar animals were the
lion and the snake, and ethnically related to the
Phrygian Cybele and the ancestress of the Cretan
Rhea and probably of some Hellenic goddesses. By
her side is sometimes represented a youthful deity
imagined probably as her lover or son. We discern
also the figure of a sky-god, armed and descending
through the air. But we cannot doubt but that the
goddess-cult was the predominant factor of the
religion. And this accords with the interesting
results gained by the excavations conducted by Dr
Waldstein on the site of the Argive Herjeum, which
attest an immemorial goddess-cult on this spot. The
Minoan imagination of the divinity was clearly
anthropomorphic, but probably admitted the idea
that it might occasionally be embodied in animal
form ; that is to say, the anthropomorphism was not
yet stable. That the Cretan religion ran riot in
a totemistic theriolatry was an erroneous conception
suggested by the misinterpretation of certain devices
on Cretan signet-rings and seals. ^ Besides the higher

1 Vide Cook, "Animal Worship in the Mycenaean Age/' Hellcn.
Journ.j 1894.


divinities, we have reason to suppose that the Cretan-
Minoan reUgion admitted the divine ancestor to a
share in worship ; and the relation of the king to the
deity was evidently most intimate. The legend of
King Minos' intercourse with Zeus is an indication
which gains in significance by the important fact,
revealed by the excavations, that the only shrines
were within the king's palace, no constructed temples
on open sites other than the cave-shrines having as
yet been found in Minoan Crete. As regards the
ritual of this period, the famous sarcophagus found
at Hagia Triada ^ reveals a ceremony of blood-offer-
ing, in which the blood of the sacred ox is first
caught in a receptacle and then poured on an altar ;
we may take this as evidence of the idea of a mystic
potency inherent in the blood of the victim. The skin
of the sacrificed ox seems also to have been sacred,
for four of the worshippers are wearing it ; and the
rite differs in details of some importance from the
later Hellenic.

Finally, we have faint glimpses in Cretan myth-
ology of a communion-service in which the mortal
was absorbed into the divine nature by the simulated
fiction of a holy marriage ; a mystery much enacted
by the later Cybele-ritual, which, we may believe,
descended collaterally from a Minoan source.^

The last point worth noting here is that the
temple-service of this earlier pre-Hellenic culture

1 Fide Paribeni in Monumenti Antichi {dei Lincei), xix. p. 1, etc..
Pis. i. and ii.

2 Vide my Cults of the Greek States, iii. pp. 298-302.


was probably aniconic ; the human image of the
divinity, though carved for other purposes, was not
set up as the central object of worship ; the sacred
" agalmata," the tokens of the divine presence, were
the axe, the pillar, even the cross.

We may now turn to the other, probably the
predominating, factor of the Hellenism that de-
veloped in these lands, and consider the stage of
religious development reached by the earliest
"Aryan-Hellenic" immigrants from the North, the
ideas and forms and personages of their cults, if it is
possible to discover them. No one will now set
forth to reconstruct an aboriginal Indo-Germanic
religion ; the fanciful structures set up by former
scholars have long passed into the limbo of abortive
anthropplogy. But the far more limited problem
just stated ought not to lie beyond the range of
modern science, especially as the suspicion grows
that the breaking into the Southern Peninsula from
the Balkans of the warlike tribes of North- Aryan
kinship — Acheeans, Minyai, Dryopes, lonians, and
others — was a late event in Mediterranean history,
later perhaps than the middle of the second millen-
nium ; for this has been strongly corroborated by
recent valuable exploration of the plain of Thessaly
by Messrs Wace and Thompson,^ revealing to us
this desirable grass-region as peopled down to a
period later perhaps than 1500 B.C. by a race still on
the neolithic level, a people living defencelessly in
villages on the plain, not yet disturbed by the

1 Vide Hellenic Journal, xxviii. p. 323, xxix. p. 359, xxx. p. 360.


trampling of the invader or by the rumour of war
from the North. Let us assume that the Acheean
and his kinsfolk of other warlike tribes were forcing
their way South at some time in the first half of the
second millennium, arriving thus at the home that
they were to make famous about the zenith of the
Minoan age and not so many centuries before the
Homeric. How, then, are we to get to know the
religion of the proto- Hellene, who is, after all, not so
remote from us ? The comparative argument from
other Aryan religions is always at any point capable
of deceiving us. Still, our convictions cannot help
being influenced by what we know of other Aryan
races at any early period in their history ; and by far
the most momentous and earliest fact in the religious
history of any Aryan race is revealed to us by the
newly discovered cuneiform inscription found at
Boghaz-Keui, dating not far from 1400 b.c.^ It
reveals to us that the Vedic-Iranian religion had
already reached the higher stage of theism at this
period, the names Mitra, Varuna, being already
applied to personal gods.

To suppose that the proto-Hellenic Aryan was in
the godless stage, worshipping perhaps at best vague
and formless " numina " or shadowy divine potencies
rather than persons, or worshipping only some totem-
animal, or perhaps nothing at all, and that the revela-
tion of the higher polytheism was reserved for him

1 Fide E. Meyer, " Das erste auftreten der Aryer in der
Geschichte," in the Sitzwigsherichte d. Kbnigl. preuss. Akad.
Wissensch., 1908, p. 14.


until after he had entered upon his Southern in-
heritance, all this is to my mind a strong delusion,
making havoc of the reasonable interpretation of
later contemporary and prehistoric facts.

We may be able by a logical reconstruction of
the debris of prehistoric religious deposits to exhibit
the " making of a god " ; but the period when '* Zeus
was not yet Zeus" does not belong to the earliest
history of the race whom we may dare to call Aryan-
Hellenic. The proto- Hellenes brought in certain
deities already made, and found certain others already
made and crystallised in the Mediterranean area over
which they spread.

Assuming this, we may feel that the question

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Online LibraryLewis Richard FarnellThe higher aspects of Greek religion. Lectures delivered at Oxford and in London in April and May 1911 → online text (page 1 of 11)