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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— what was the primitive nature- significance or
animistic germ of this or that Hellenic divinity ? —
though a legitimate one, may really start us down
a false track. For, if the early invaders adopted a
Minoan-Mycen«an divinity, say Rhea or Artemis or
Aphrodite, she would be for them just Rhea or
Artemis or Aphrodite, a concrete personality as real
for them as the Virgin Mary for their late descend-
ants ; they might not be inclined to inquire about,
or even to suspect, the natural phenomenon in the
background of these personages.

If this view, which I cannot here argue further,
is correct, and if the earliest Hellenes were already
somewhat advanced in respect of theistic thought
and belief, the question at once arises whether we
can distinguish between the divinities of the Northern
immigrants and those which they adopted from the



earlier Mediterranean race. We are not yet near
the final settlement of this question ; doubtless we
shall be brought nearer to it by the decipherment
of the iEgean-Minoan script, if that feat is ever
accomplished. For the present we have primarily
the clue of language ; those names of divinities in
which we can discover with certainty or reasonable
probability a Hellenic or even an I ndo- Germanic
stem are generally regarded as belonging to the
tradition of the invaders from the North ; such are
Zeus, the stem of whose name was used for the
divine names belonging to other Aryan races, pro-
bably Poseidon, Demeter, Hestia, Pan. But the
names of other leading divinities — such as Athena,
Aphrodite, Artemis, Hephaistos — remain etymological
puzzles and may be derived from the non-Hellenic
speech of indigenous peoples. Yet even if we could
be more sure than we are about the names, the
etymology of the names does not always bring us to
the inwardness of the facts. The Aryan Hellenes
may have attached their own divine names Demeter
and Hera to the great goddesses of Eleusis and
Argos ; but the mystery worship of Eleusis may
well have been a heritage of the aboriginal population
and the goddess of Argos may have been many
centuries older than the earliest probable date that
can be assigned to the first inroads of the Northern

But sometimes certain facts of cult and ritual
will help us to decide more surely than the etymo-
logical analysis of names. We do not know the


meaning of the name Apollon ; but we may be sure
that he came in from the North, because his sacred
pilgrims' way, which he himself traversed every
fourth year in the incarnation of a beautiful boy, led
from Tempe to Delphi, and his other sacred route,
down which came the yearly hyperborean offerings
from the North, passed down the Adriatic shores of
Greece to Dodona ; we may infer that the god him-
self had traversed both these natural highways of the
Northerners' invasion. And these facts of well-
attested ancient ritual outweigh all that has been
said by Wilamowitz in favour of his hypothesis that
Apollo arose in Lycia. Again, the Northern origin
of Poseidon is corroborated by the geographical
record of his cult. Still clearer is the evidence con-
cerning Dionysos, the deity who overshadowed most
others in the later Hellenism ; it is the generally
accepted view that his cult originated among a
Thracian people of Indo-Germanic speech.

Another test that may help us in dealing with the
ethnic problems of this composite rehgion is the
greater or lesser prominence of the cult of the god or
the goddess. Now, the early records of such Aryan
peoples as the Vedic-Indians, the Iranians, the
Teutonic and Slavonic nations, indicate the pre-
dominance of the male divinity, although goddess-
worship is found in all these races and cannot be
explained away as a non- Aryan phenomenon.
Therefore the supremacy of the father-god Zeus,
who took his name Olympios from the distant
mountain on the northern confines of Greece, the


early influence in Thessaly and North Greece of such
gods as Poseidon and Apollo, can be regarded as the
products of the northern religious tradition.

On the other hand, certain districts of the Medi-
terranean, especially those in which the Minoan-
Mycensean culture flourished, have been from
immemorial time under the rule of the goddess.
The Aryan conquerors from the North, in obedience
to a racial instinct, might endeavour to supplant this ;
as we find the Bithynians, Aryan cousins of the
Thrako-Phrygians, endeavouring to exalt the father-
god above the great mother, Cybele. But the old
tradition of the land was often invincible against
such attempts. Where, then, we find the goddess
supreme, as at Athens, Argos, Crete, Samos, and
elsewhere, we may discern here in the composite
religion the element contributed by the older
indigenous culture. We may draw the same con-
clusion when we find the virginity of the goddess a
prevailing dogma ; for, though certain Aryan myth-
ologies — the Teutonic, for instance — are aware of a
few subordinate divine figures conceived as virginal,
yet the tendency of the Indo-Germanic pantheons is
to link the goddess with the god.

I have been considering the ethnic question as if
we had only to estimate the respective force of the
Northern and the Minoan-Mycensean influence on
Greek polytheism. I am aware of the other theories
put forward by certain speciaUsts who would find in
Babylon or Egypt the origins of much of it.

The Babylonian question I have somewhat elabo-


rately discussed in a former course of lectures,^ and I
have arrived at the negative conviction that, in the
second millennium B.C., Babylon exercised no influence
at all on the then primitive Greek polytheism.

The Egyptian theory is not championed by any
competent student of comparative religion. M. Fou-
cart's attempt to prove the Egyptian origin of the
Eleusinian mysteries^ fails to convince a trained
critic. On the other hand, it is reasonable to suppose
that early Egyptian religion cast certain rays upon
Minoan Crete ; and if they reached ultimately as
far as the Greek mainland, it was probably through
the religious atmosphere of this great island. In the
main, therefore, the view that the chief constituents
of the polytheism of historic Greece are a Northern
religious tradition and an indigenous Mediterranean,
of which the Minoan- Mycenaean religion was the
culminating point, is not obviously too narrow. For
the Asiatic Greeks we must reckon also with the
religious traditions of the Anatolian Coast, which in
many respects were not alien to those of Crete.

This slight sketch may suffice at present as a
background for the social-religious phenomena which
I have selected as a topic for this course. But in
following down certain lines of religious development
one is always confronted with the chronological
question : what antiquity is to be assigned to the
birth of some of the higher products of the later

^ Vide Greece and Babylon (1911).

2 Recherches sur I'origine et la natui^e des mysteres d' E leu sis, 1895 ;
cf. my Cults of the Greek States, iii. 141-143,


historic period ? And this involves a question as to
the level of political and religious character attained
by those Northern races at the period of their early
immigration. At the best our answer can only be
tentative, a hypothetical construction based partly
upon Homeric evidence and partly on the later
records concerning early institutions, early cults,
and the diffusion of cults.

How, then, are we to estimate the Homeric
evidence? The question is vast and intricate, as
every scholar knows, and every student of Greek
religion must form some opinion about it. I can
only here state my own without argument. I believe
that the poems give us a partial picture of the
Greek world of a period not far from 1000 B.C. ;
therefore, as moral and religious forms and sentiments
do not spring up in a year, but are very slow in
evolution, I believe we can cautiously argue back
from the Homeric poems so as to gain some concep-
tion of the moral and religious forces at work in the
centuries preceding the age of the poet. Now, the
religion of Homer strikes the student who is trained
in the comparative criticism of this field as generally
advanced in respect of form and ritual, and generally
elevated in sentiment ; in spite of occasional frivolities,
such as are found in most poetry that deals with the
actions of gods, the moral-religious tone is often
earnest and profound ; in the cult-service and in the
relations between men and the deities, there is nothing
savage or degrading. And the almost entire absence
of any element of savagery has appeared to many


scholars a puzzle, of which different solutions have been
offered. According to Professor Murray,^ Homer —
or rather the Homeric Syndicate — has deliberately
expurgated and refined away the dross of savagery
from the materials out of which the poems were
built ; or this expurgation may have been due to the
educational policy of Peisistratos and his literary
committee. Mr Lang, in strong opposition,^ avers
that they present us with the picture of an Achaean
religion, purer and more civilised than the later
Ionian which is reflected in the post-Homeric Cycle ;
thus we gather that the Achasans were innocent of
human sacrifice, magic, ghost-worship, purification by
pig's blood, and such practices as are familiar to the
anthropologist of savage life. I cannot believe that
the truth lies in either of these views, while the second
appears to me even further removed from it than the
first. It seems unlikely that Homer was conscious
of a mission, or set to work as a moral reformer ; one
would not call the authors of the Volsunga Saga and
the Nib elungen- Lied expurgators because they omit
much that was dark and repulsive in old Teutonic
ritual. The chance is likely enough that Homer, like
Shakespeare, was of a nature more refined, high-bred,
and delicate than his average contemporary ; but it is
better to suppose that he, like Shakespeare, was of his
age, if above it at points. But most paradoxical in this
theory of expurgation is the suggestion that Peisis-
tratos and his circle were really responsible for what

1 The Rise of the Greek Epic.

2 The World of Homer.


we call Homeric religion ; no one who is thoroughly

conversant with the religious facts of Peisistratean

Athens could believe this for a moment. On the

other hand, Mr Lang's error appears to me no less

serious ; to construct an imaginary Ach^an religion

out of Homer's silences is a dangerous adventure,

and he himself has taught us how to criticise such

procedure ; let us try to construct an Ehzabethan

religion out of Shakespeare's silences, and then enjoy

the ludicrously false picture that would emerge. The

Shakespearean drama and a modern three-volume

novel range over a wider surface of life than the

Iliad ; and yet they only reflect a small fraction of

contemporary life, for every creator, however broad

his range, can only select little and must omit much.

The poet of the Iliad selects a four-days' episode of

the Trojan war; reciting this in the comparatively

refined hall of some chieftain, he would have been

foolishly irrelevant if he had dragged in a reference

to the burning of a scapegoat or the ritual-murder of

a daughter, when his theme did not suggest such

unpleasant topics ; nor was it Shakespeare's business

to allude to the torturing of Jesuits or the horrors of

Spain. We will not, then, merely on the ground of

Homer's silence, beUeve that the Achseans were

innocent of human sacrifice. Nor, in fact, is the

Homeric religion, critically studied, so unlike that

of the later historic Greece as Mr Lang imagines.

What Homer positively tells us, valeat tanti, let

us accept it for what it is worth. He is good

witness to his own period, within his limits, and


indirectly for the period preceding his ; but he reveals
to us only a portion of the whole.

Many years' study of the multiform evidence
concerning the social-religious Ufe of the pre-Homeric
Northern tribes who came down to make Greece can
only yield at most a probable hypothesis, scarcely a
reasoned inductive certainty. I venture to embody
some of my own conclusions in the following sketch,
of which I recognise the precariousness.

The Achasans and the other kindred tribes entered
the Southern Peninsula with a culture probably as
advanced at least as that of the early Angli at the
time of our migration, and with greater aptitude for
absorbing the higher civiHsation which they found :
possessed of metals — bronze, at least — and of family
institutions of patrilinear monogamic type, with which
were associated the worship of the hearth and probably
the cult of ancestors ; equipped with some knowledge
of agriculture, which was assisted by magico-religious
agrarian rites such as the Thesmophoria, and con-
secrated by the cult of a corn-goddess or earth-
goddess ; endowed with a religion of the theistic type
already somewhat advanced, but still cherishing many
beliefs of the ''animistic" or pre-animistic point of
view. The sky-god Zeus was also in this aboriginal
period a god of vegetation, and, as such, capable of
functionising as a chthonian deity, so that the later
distinction between Olympian and chthonian rites
and cults is not to be regarded generally as a distinc-
tion between the North- Aryan and the Mediterranean
strains in Greek religion. The high god was also


already moralised. Political life, with the germs of
civic institutions, was already beginning, and certain
deities were taking on a political character. Rehgion
had advanced beyond the purely tribal stage, and
certain tribes had deities like Zeus and Poseidon and
Apollo in common. In the social-religious institu-
tions connected with the tribal life there is little
evidence of savagery. There is no proof of totemistic
organisation ; for the zealots of totemism have wrongly
interpreted certain phenomena that arose, not from
totemism, but from theriolatry or the theriomorphic
imagination of the deity, phenomena which are found
at most stages of religion concurrently with anthropo-
morphism. Neither is there any clear evidence of
those institutions that specially belong to savage
tribal society — the compulsory initiation of the boys
into tribal mysteries, or the painful ceremonies im-
posed upon girls on arrival at puberty. The great
mysteries of historic Greece, being devoted to a
great goddess, were probably of Mediterranean rather
than North-Aryan origin; the incoming Achasans
and their kindred tribes may have possessed tribal
mysteries,^ such as those of Trophonios at Lebadeia
and of Dryops, the eponymous ancestor of one of the
oldest tribes of this group, but we have no record or
hint of compulsory or general initiation. The puberty-
ceremonies of girls, where we have any ancient ritual-
evidence such as that of the Attic Brauronia, appear
to have been harmless and free from the cruelty

1 For the question of puberty-mysteries among other Aryan races,
see Oldenberg, Religion des Veda, p. 466, for the Upanayana initiation.


and superstitions that burden these in most savage
societies. From this we may conclude that in the
proto-Hellenic period the tyranny of the tribal system
had relaxed and the independent family life had
gathered strength.

As regards ritual, the Northern tribes had not yet
raised the temple or carved the idol ; the holy place,
in some way fenced off, might be a tree, or grove, or
cave, with a pillar or stone altar marking the presence
of the deity, for pillar-cult was not a specially
Mediterranean product. The hymn, the choral dance,
and the prayer were already developed, and the wor-
ship was partly magical, partly — perhaps mainly —

As regards sacrifice, the two types of the blood-
offering and the bloodless were prevalent, and the
sacrifice was not merely regarded as a gift to the
god, but the germs of the sacramental idea might
be found in it. Human sacrifice was occasionally
in vogue, though probably the progressive spirit of
the societies was already in protest against it. Some
ritual of purification from disease, death, childbirth,
was doubtless part of the Northern tradition, as the
antiquity of Apollo's title ^o7l3os might suggest ; but
the cathartic system sat lightly upon this people, and
the idea of the dangerous miasma of the homicide
had not yet developed, as we may safely in this respect
interpret the silence of Homer ; and for this, as for
other reasons, we can believe that this virile race of
men of clear and sane mental vision was not in
bondage to the terrors of the ghost world.


Finally, we may discern that in spite of the pene-
tration of religion into the whole social life of these
peoples, religion was the ministrant rather than the
master, the priest was a citizen, the servant not the
despot of the State, and the societies could pursue
their paths of secular progress untrammelled by a too
powerful religious conservatism. What the JNIediter-
ranean influence could instil into them was the more
intense religious life, and this influence began to
work more strongly in the post- Homeric period.



The only type of family organisation which is re-
flected clearly by the earliest Greek cults and cult-
legends is the patrilinear, which reckons descent
through the father and tends to centralise the kins-
folk on certain plots of land around the patriarchal
hearth and homestead ; and may have arisen in the
more settled pastoral period and have been finally
cemented by the agricultural economy/ It confronts
us in the earliest records of every Aryan race, and
generally in the Semitic communities.

On the other hand, the assertion has been confidently
made that the pre-Hellenic Mediterranean stocks were
matrilinear, counting descent through the female.
1 am not concerned to discuss the evidence for this,
but only to reassert what I have tried to prove in
detail elsewhere,^ that this supposed matrilinear
system has left no clear imprint of itself upon early
or late Hellenic cult. The contrary has only been

1 The Bovlvyat, the " ox-yokers " at Athens who performed the
" sacred ploughings " for the State, are also priests of Zev? TeAetos, the
god of marriage. See my Cults of the Greek States, i. p. L57, R. 96c.

2 " Sociologic Hypotheses concerning the Position of Women/' in
A rchiv fur Religio?iswisse}ischaft, 1904.



maintained mainly through ignorance of the modern
evidence concerning the rehgion and the social forms
of contemporary and ancient matriHnear societies.
There is no need to summarise all the arguments.
I will only allude to two points concerning which
those who have not worked at all, or sufficiently, at
the subject are still liable to be misled. It is thought
that the frequent supremacy of the goddess in these
lands is the reflex of a matrilinear society. We
would judge it to be so if the goddess were habitually
worshipped as an ancestress, if it were found that
matrilinear societies are generally ruled by a queen,
and that the religious ordering of these societies is
in the hands of women and that women will naturally
prefer a goddess to a god. But as these things are
not generally so, the supremacy of the goddess
craves, or at least admits, another explanation which
need not be sociological at all. Again, the hasty
imagination of M'Lennan has brought into certain
vogue an interpretation of the story of Orestes' trial
as involving a conflict between an older matri-
linear system which the Erinyes represent with a
later patrilinear which is championed by Apollo and
Orestes.^ He has misinterpreted the nature of the
Erinyes and the facts of that cause celebre, and caused
others to misinterpret them. The Erinyes pursued
the shedder of kindred blood ; they had no prejudices ;
in fact, according to Hesiodic legend, they came into
being through the outrage of a son on his father ;
under either system of descent, the mother is of the

1 Studies in Ancient History (1886), pp. 211-215.


closest kin to her child and matricide is a terrible sin ;
but they would have pursued Orestes with equal
ardour if he had killed his father, as they pursued
Laios ; they did not pursue Clytemnestra because,
according to old Greek ideas, the wife is not akin to
the husband.

Perhaps the earliest phenomenon discernible in the
history of Hellenic family religion is the worship of
the hearth. In Homer we have hints of this sanctity
— we should not expect more than hints from him —
in the fact that oath is taken in the name of the
hearth, and that the suppliant acquires sacrosanct
virtue by sitting at the hearth.^ Hesiod is our
earliest voucher for the personal goddess called
'Ecrria.^ But in times long anterior to his or Homer's
the name and the thing were associated with a holy
force that the Romans would call a numen, a divine
potency animate or animistically conceived, that rarely
in any period of actual cult developed a concrete
personality of its own.^ We have reason to suppose
that in the prehistoric past of many, if not all, the
Aryan races, the permanent hearth with its mysterious
fire and stone basement was a holy object ; for Greece
at least, and for the kindred peoples of Italy the evi-
dence from the prehistoric period is fairly clear.* Being
mysteriously divine and itself the centre of the family
life, worshipped by the household with a sacrifice

1 Od., xiv. 158 ; xix. 304. 2 Theog., 458.

3 Vide my Cults, v. pp. 345-365.

4 Vide Frazer, "The Prytaneum, Temple of Vesta," in Journal of
Philology, xiv. pp. l63, 169-171 ; Pfuhl in Athenische Mittheilungen,
1904, p. 351.


that appears in Greece to have been of sacramental
type, we may imagine that it served as a reUgious
bond for a system of family duties and morals. The
records that are explicit concerning this are few but
valuable, although in dealing with them we cannot
always distinguish what is early from what is late.
We see that in the pre-Homeric period, the hearth
was the basis of that virtue of hospitality that pro-
tected the wanderer and the suppliant. We may
also believe that in the same early age emerged the
idea that the hearth was pure, for the same reason as
an altar was pure, and must not be polluted by im-
pure sights or actions. The earliest evidence for this
is the tabu-law expressed in Hesiod's Works and
Days} And this special characteristic of the hearth
divinity may have suggested certain ritual forms of
purification. The interesting Attic ceremony called
the Amphidromia,^ in which the members of the
family who had assisted at a birth ran round the
hearth with the new-born child in their arms, must be
regarded partly as a purification rite, and may also
have been inspired by the idea that the legitimate
infant should be duly presented to the holy hearth.
Again, the feeling that the hearth was a centre from
which purity radiated may be discerned in the
cathartic rites at Athens, whereby the ecclesia was
purified ; it seems that the little pigs that were
used for this purpose had first to be carried round
the hearth of the city ; and charged thus with
divine influence they could dispel miasma elsewhere.

M. 733. 2 Cults, V. p. S5i5.


Hence, when Hestia emerges into a real personality,
she is regarded as essentially virgin.

Now, this holy place in the midst of the ancient
" Aryan " home, which appears not to have existed
in the warmer region of Crete, might have been the
centre of the highest family morality that was
developed with monogamic institutions ; and we
must believe that it helped to provide a religious
sanction to the family tie. We might expect to
find the holy hearth and the personal goddess
who emerged from it playing some part in the
marriage ceremonies, but the cult-records scarcely
attest this at all. The most significant expression
in literature of the intensity of feeling evoked by
this family-worship is the prayer of Alkestis in
the play of Euripides : ^ " Lady-goddess, as I am
going down to the grave, for the last time 1 will

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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 2 of 11)