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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make my prayer to thee : foster my orphan children,
and join to the one a loving wife and to the other a
noble husband."

But, on the whole, the family-union of the early
Hellenes and the morality by which it was cemented
were safeguarded by the higher divinities of stronger
personality, Zeus especially, Hera, Athena, Apollo.
It is noteworthy that this people, unlike many
others, imputed to their highest god the minutest
personal concern in every part of their social

It is interesting to find in our earliest records that
the national god was associated with the family-
1 Ale. 1. 163.


cult of each householder. Homer himself attests the
worship of Zeus 'EpKelos, the god of the ipKo^ or
garth, whose altar stood in the courtyard of the
early Hellenic house, round which all the kinsmen
gathered for the sacrifice ; the cult endured through
the ages, and by the fifth century b.c. the sacred
name could be used as a synonym for the abstract
idea of kinship itself/ The high god was present
also at the hearth ; he himself was called 'Et^icmo?,^
and under the shadow of his power the personal
goddess Hestia grew up and was adopted as his
daughter. Thus not only was the whole morality
of the family, so far as this was given a religious
colour by the later writers, consecrated by the
worship of Zeus, but he himself, in spite of a
licentious mythology, provides through his marriage
with Hera the very archetype of the monogamic
Aryan marriage. To establish this interesting fact
we must study the religious ritual associated with a
Hellenic marriage, so far as the fragmentary evidence
allows us. No doubt the ceremonies varied in the
different states ; but what evidence has come down
to us reveals little of barbarism,^ little association
with magic ^ compared for instance with the evidence
of the Vedic ritual,^ and it expresses a stronger

^ For references see Cull'i, i. pp. 157-158.

- Herod., 1. 44; Scliol. Aristoph., PluL, 395.

^ The form of bride-capture survived at Sparta (Plut., Lycurg.,
15), of the " Ehe-aufprobe " and the flight of the bride at Samos.

* The wearing of female dress by the bridegroom at Kos was
a practice inspired probably by daimonistic magic.

^ Vide Oldenberg, op. cit., pp. 462-465.


infusion of social-civic sentiment than is discernible
in our own marriage-service. The union of the
highest god and goddess was celebrated annually
in many parts of Greece in a service that was called
the lepo^ ydixo^, or holy marriage, some of the details
of which suggest an ancient date for its origin. Now,
the fragment of Pherekydes, contained in a recently
discovered papyrus, describes the momentous event,
and in the narrative Zeus proclaims that it shall
serve to men as an archetype and a law for the
ritual of human marriage,^ and a later authority^
vouches for the fact that the ordinary bride and
bridegroom performed some mimetic representation
of this t€/309 ya/xo9. And this is to some extent
corroborated by the newly discovered fragment of
Callimachus' poem on the love-story of Akontios
and Kydippe, of which the first few lines allude to
the ordinance that before the wedding day the maid
must go through a simulated union with a boy in
imitation of Hera and her youthful divine lover.^
By other acts of worship also, by sacrifice and
invocation, the high god and his consort were
most intimately associated with the rite of human
marriage. A curious detail is recorded of the pre-
liminary sacrifice to Hera by Plutarch,* who declares
that before the victim was burnt on the altar the
gall was extracted and buried by itself ; he explains

1 Revue des Etudes Grecques, 1897, p. 3.

2 Photius, ii. 670 (Porson).

3 Oxyrh. Papyr., vii. ; Revue des Etudes Grecques, 1910, p. 26 1.
^ Cong. Prcec., p. 141 E.


this rule as dictated by the desire that the ensuing
marriage should be without gall and bitterness. And
we must, I think, accept his explanation, which is
quite in accordance with the law of sympathetic
magic that ruled the procedure of ancient sacrifice.

As the monogamic patrilinear marriage generally
implies settled life, and in the evolution of society
the natural economic basis of this would be agri-
culture, it might be expected that the ritual of
human marriage would have been specially con-
secrated to Demeter the corn-goddess. We are
surprised, therefore, to find but scanty evidence of
this. Only an inscription from Kos proves that this
goddess played some part in the marriage-service ;
and Plutarch speaks of " the ancient ordinance
which the priestess of Demeter applied to you, the
husband and wife, when you were being shut in
the bridal-chamber together." ^ It may be that her
presence was recognised also in that interesting Attic
ritual recorded by the later Paroemiographi : it was
the custom at Athens in the marriage ceremony for
a boy whose parents were both alive — such being
specially chosen for religious functions— to carry
round a basket full of loaves and to recite the
mystic formula, " I have fled from evil and have
found a better thing." ^ Plutarch gives an explana-
tion w^hich seems to have been current, that the
loaves symboHse the civilised life of the higher
family-system as contrasted with the wilder wood-

1 Cults of the Greek States, iii. 82.

2 ?\ut.,' Proverb. Alex., l6; cf. Zenob., S, 98.


land diet when man lived on berries. This is
interesting, but we may believe that the bread-
pannier served for some simple sacramental rite such
as the Roman *' confarreatio," in which the bride and
bridegroom eat bread together; and this may have
carried with it the mystic conception of union with
the earth -mother of corn. If this interpretation were
certain, it would prove the sacramental character of
Attic marriage. The record certainly proves one
other fact of interest and importance, namely, that
Greek marriage was not only a religious act — there
is ample other evidence to show that — but it was, in
certain places and at certain times, assimilated to the
liturgy of the mysteries. For the formula, " I have
fled from evil and have found a better thing," has
a mystic tone and is verbally the same as that
which, as Demosthenes tells us, was used in the
Phrygian mysteries of Dionysos-Sabazios.^ Further,
we note that this association between the marriage-
ceremony and the mystery-rites is borne out by the
application to both of the term ''reXo^'' [reXerr^'], '*end,"
"initiation." Both may have been regarded from
the point of view presented by M. van Gennep in his
Rites de passage-, both might be viewed as transi-
tions from an old life to a new one presumably
better, processes in which the initiate renounces or
dies to the old and is reborn in the new. For
the history of the ancient Hellenic marriage it
would be a great gain if we could determine when
first that mystic formula came into vogue in the

1 De Cor.^ § 259.



ceremony. It had probably been used in pre-
Christian times, and St Paul's words in his Epistle
to the Ephesians/ to ^vo-Trjpiov tovto fxeya icTTL — *' great
is this mystery," — which were momentous for the
marriage-theory of the later Church, were in accord-
ance both in spirit and in verbal form with earlier
Hellenic religious custom rather than with Hebraic.

Another significant phenomenon observable occa-
sionally in the old Greek marriage-ritual was the
previous consecration of the bride to the local god
or hero. Thus, in New- 1 Hum every betrothed maiden
before the marriage day was obHged to go and bathe
in the river Skamandros and to offer her virginity to
the river-god. The explanation that I have sug-
gested for this rite ^ is that the maiden was regarded
as hereby entering into bodily communion with the
divine foster-father of the land, so that the child
born subsequently of the wedlock would have in
it part of the tutelary spirit of the god, and thus
the marriage and the birth would bring the mother
and the child into communion, half-corporeal, half-
mystic, with the people and the people's deity.
A similar explanation might be applied to the
rule recorded of Troizen, that the maidens there
must consecrate their hair to Hippolytos before
marriage,^ thus putting themselves in communion
with the city-hero, so that the child born of the
marriage might be considered as his gift, an idea
that would explain such names as " Herodotos." At

1 V. 32. 2 Cults, V. 423.

3 Paus., 2. 32. 2; Eur., Hipp., 1425.


Athens the maid before marriage was taken by her
parents and presented to Athena on the Acropolis,
and a sacrifice was offered to the goddess.^ Probably
this was more than a mere gift or bribe to the god-
dess ; for we may rather interpret it as an act of
communion in which the bride at this period of her
life, which was fraught with danger to herself and
promise to the State, was consecrated to the tutelary
deity and thus drew closer her ties with the com-
munity and its goddess. Similar records might be
quoted of the other states of Greece, and we can
draw the general conclusion that the consecration
of a bride to a divinity was a normal part of the
Hellenic marriage ceremony.

Another department of Greek religion whence a
religious colour was reflected upon marriage was
ancestor-worship and the tendance of the spirits of
the dead. As the status of these wholly depended
on the maintenance of the rites at their tombs, and
these were only performed by members of the same
family, a strong religious motive was furnished to
matrimony, that a man might propagate lawful heirs
to carry on the irpoyovLKa lepd, the ancestor-cults.

Various passages in Greek literature give forcible
expression to this social-religious idea, which appears
more prominently still in Hindu literature, early and
late. The orator Isaios testifies that " all who are
going to die take forethought for themselves, that
they may not leave their houses desolate, but that
there may be someone to make offerings at the

1 Photius, s.v. irpoTcXeiav rj/xepai^


family tombs." ^ Euripides also speaks of sons as the
protectors and avengers of the family graves.^ And
hence we may explain the fact that, at Athens at
least, a libation at the family tomb or an offering
to the Tritopatores, the fictitious ancestors of the
yei^T) or kinship-groups, was sometimes included in
the marriage ceremonies.^ When the family pos-
sessed a special hero-cult, the marriage might be
performed in the hero's shrine, as was prescribed in
the will of Epikteta.

This special aspect of marriage belongs to the
narrow and lower sphere of family religion ; but it is
that which has probably inspired Plato with the most
exalted conception concerning the duty of marriage
and paternity that has ever been embodied in ethical
or religious literature. In a passage in the Laws he
tells us that a man "must cling to the eternal life
of the world by leaving behind him his children's
children so that they may minister to God in his
place." ^ No such spiritual utterance on the subject
appears in the Mazdean sacred books, though the
sentiment would have appealed to Zarathustra, in
whose creed every good Mazdean ranked as Ahura-
Mazda's champion and every good Mazdean must

Thus, it is wholly true to say that the association
of marriage with religion was as close in civilised

1 Tlepl Tov 'AttoXXoS. K\r]p., p. 66 Bekk.

2 Stobseus, FloriL, iii. p. 78.

3 j^sch, Choeph., 486 ; Photius, s.v. Tritopatores.

4 p. 773 E.


Greece as it is or has been in Christendom. But the
rehgious point of view is widely different, and to note
the difference illuminates the gulf between the old
Hellenic and the Christian ideal. While the latter
looked mainly to the individual soul, and its main
concern was the gospel of purity, the social religion
of Greece looked to the State and to the family as
a unit of the State. Thus, the State-religion and
the State-law could enjoin marriage as a duty. At
Sparta a man was punished for celibacy, or for marry-
ing late or marrying badly ; ^ and in Plato's common-
wealth fines were imposed on those who remained
single past a certain age, to be paid into the temple of
Hera, the goddess of marriage.^ A fine was claimed
by the same divinity from the Athenian archon who
failed to enforce the rules concerning the marriage of
orphan-heiresses.^ The spirit of Greek religion is, in
fact, entirely in accord with that dictum expressed by
Plato in the Laws,^ — so antagonistic to modern senti-
ment — namely, that a man in his choice of a wife
must be guided by the interests of the State, not
by his own pleasure ; and Aristotle in his Politics
takes the same view. In fact, to the ethical and
religious theory of the ancient classical communities
romantic sentiment would appear merely egoism,
and the religious and philosophic ideal of marriage
was wholly altruistic.

A further question arises, whether ancient Hellenic

1 Plut., Lycurg., \5, and Pollux, 8. 40.

2 Laws, p. 774 A.

3 Demosth. in Makart., § 54. * p. 773 B.


religion agreed with our own in this respect, that con-
jugal infidelity was considered a religious offence. A
priori we might expect that it would be so considered
according to the logical law of ritual ; for any com-
pact consecrated by the presence of or the appeal to
divine powers engenders the belief that these will be
offended by its violation. But the only public record
— so far as I can find — that has come down to us
from Greek antiquity, showing that a religious
penalty was inflicted in a flagrant case of adultery,
is that law which Demosthenes, or the pseudo-
Demosthenes, quotes in the speech against Neaira,
that the woman td^^Qw flagrante delicto was excluded
from the public temples, and that if she entered them
she was liable to any punishment short of death ; and
commenting on it, the speaker declares that its in-
tention was to keep the public places of worship
clear from pollution and impiety.^

It is probable that this severe law prevailed else-
where than at Athens ; for the female philosopher
Theano, of the Pythagorean school, gives it as a
formal maxim that the adulteress was for ever to be
excluded from temple worship.^

Doubtless the popular Greek morality, that re-
probated adultery both in the case of the husband
and the wife, was associated with a certain religious
feeling, though only a few utterances of the higher
literature survive to attest the association. We have
a striking phrase in the Eumenides of ^^schylus :
" The fated bond of the marriage-bed guarded by

1 §§ 85-87. - Clem. Alex., Strom., p. 6l9, Pott.


justice is stronger than an oath,"^ and in the same
passage Apollo reproaches the Erinyes for their in-
difference to the sin of Clytemnestra : " Verily thou
bringest to nought the pledges of Zeus and Hera,
the powers of marriage " ; words which involve the
idea that the adulteress and murderess had sinned
against the high divinities in whose name the marriage-
rite was concluded. The Erinyes defend themselves
by limiting their own jurisprudence to cases of kindred
bloodshed, and maintain that the wife is not of blood-
kin to the husband. But in Homer their powers
are conceived as wider than this ; and in the Ajax of
Sophocles they are invoked as the " holy ones whose
eyes behold all mortal sin and suffering."^ Hence
we need not suspect the passage in the Electra of
the same poet which is significant for our present
purpose, in which the Erinyes are spoken of as
" looking with concern on those who die un-
righteously and those who are betrayed in their
marriage-beds."^ It might seem at first sight, on
the evidence of these two last citations, that the
Erinyes were popularly regarded as guardians in
general of the moral law, punishing not only murder
and breaches of the marriage-tie, but all wrong of
man against man, and that therefore Greek religion
and social morality were coextensive. But the facts
do not appear to warrant this large conclusion. It
is true that the powers and functions of the Erinyes
arose in a great degree from the ancient belief in
the power of the curse, and anyone who was wronged

1 1. 217-218. - 1. 836. 3 i_ iU-115.


might avail himself of this mystic weapon. But in
the older period their activity seems to have been
evoked chiefly by murder and possibly by incest ; ^
in the later period, according to the popular view,
they were little more than executors of the wrath
of the slain man ; nor are they mentioned among
the deities whom the curse-tablets, the defijcionum
tabellce, invoke.^ Ordinary sexual offences against
the morality of the family were apparently not de-
nounced in any public or private commination. Its
religious safeguard was the appeal to the State-
divinities of marriage, and in lesser degree the
ancestral spirits of the family-cult. The passage
quoted above from the Enmenides agrees with the
words of Theseus in the Hippolytos of Euripides :
" Hippolytos has dared to violate my marriage-bed,
paying no honour to the solemn eye of Zeus," ^ such
an imputed act dishonouring at once the high god of
marriage and the god who protected the father's right.
Even in the later Pythagorean ethic, in spite of its
alien mysticism, the old state-gods of Greece were
not yet wholly dethroned from their immemorial
privilege of protecting the purity of family life.
Phintys, the female Pythagorean philosopher, in her

1 As regards this latter sin we have only the doubtful evidence
of the passage in the Odyssey^ 11. 280, describing the woes of
CEdipus brought about by the Erinyes of his mother, but the
ground of her curse may have been her own death and his parricide.
A late Phrygian inscription shows us Apollo Lairbenos punishing
a sin of incest^ probably not as a social offence but as a stain on the
purity of his temple ; vide Ramsay in Hellen. Journ., x. p. 219.

2 Fide supra, p. 7. ^ i 885-886.


book on " wifely continence," ^ declares that the
adulteress " who brings bastards into the house and
kindred-circle instead of true-born supporters of the
household, dishonours the deities of birth and kindred,
dishonours also the deities ordained by nature, by
whom she swore that she would unite with her
husband for full fellowship of life and for the produc-
tion of lawful children. " ^ Such a woman, she proceeds,
is excommunicate : " No purification can avail, so
that she should ever again be able to approach the
altars and temples of the gods, pure and beloved by
them : for the divine power is most inexorable in
respect of such offences." Doubtless such austere
religious ethic was above the standard of the popular
feeling ; yet there was much in the popular religion
that prompted it. The Oeol yeve6\ioi whom Phintys
invokes belong to it, and these are par excellence
Zeus and Hera. And who are those whom she
strangely called ol ^vaei Oeoi, " deities ordained by
nature " ? The context suggests that they are the
ancestral spirits of the family, ol Trarepe?, '" the
fathers," by whom the wife swears to be faithful ;
and we have seen that in the popular ritual of
the Greek marriage the ancestors and heroes had
their part.

The passages just quoted express the social-religious
value of continence and married fidelity, and mainly,
it is to be noted, as a duty of the woman rather than
of the man. Unchastity in an unmarried daughter

1 Stobseus, Floril., 74, § 60 (Meineke, 3. 64).

2 This reads somewhat Hke a weddinsc-service.


could not normally be regarded as a sin, but as a
social wrong to the family ; and the few myths that
recount cruel punishments inflicted by the fathers
for this offence are prompted by the feeling that
the daughter ruined her chance of marriage by the
loss of her virginity. A political religion like the
Hellenic could only commend the virtues of chastity
from the point of view of social utility, looking to
the purity of the family, the birth of lawful and
healthy children, the maintenance of family-cults.
It was wholly alien to its spirit to exalt virginity as
an abstract ideal desirable for the individual soul
above all other goods. It might occasionally be
required of the priestess, but then only for certain
ends of state; for the old Hellenic religion, apart
from the mysteries, was never individualistic, and
its objective was always a social organism, family,
gens, or city. Thus, a late devotee of the old
Hellenism like Dio Chrysostom inveighs as forcibly
as St Paul against the morbid vices of Greeco-Roman
society ; but not so much because of their intrinsic
stain or impurity, as because those who commit
them sin against " Zeus the birth-god, Hera the deity
of marriage, Artemis and the other goddesses of
child-birth."^ He inveighs, that is, against the evil
that destroys the family and diminishes the birth-rate.
And lest we should think that so late a writer is
no trustworthy exponent of Hellenism, we should
observe that the spirit of his sermon agrees with the
story that Peisandros, the old epic poet of Rhodes,

1 Or., 7, p. 269 R Dind., vol. i. p. 139-


brought into vogue in the seventh century B.C., namely,
that the unnatural sin of Laios was an offence against
Hera, the goddess of marriage, who sent the sphinx
to punish the Thebans for not expeUing him.^ We
know also, from the orator iEschines, that the law of
Athens punished any citizen who prostituted himself
with loss of civic rites, and this included excommuni-
cation from places of worship.

The exaltation of virginity as an end in itself is a
momentous phenomenon in the religious history of
later Mediterranean society and early Christendom,
but to trace the evolution of it takes us beyond the
Hmits of purely Hellenic religion.

For the protection of other sides of family life
the Greek polytheism was richly equipped, and no
religion was ever more deeply concerned with the
consecration of family duties, the duty of father to
son and son to father, of brothers to sisters, of all the
kinsmen each to the other, who gathered round the
same altar of '* Zeus of the Courtyard." In fact, we
may call the fulfilment of this great purpose the
master-work of Greek religion. And the whole of
this province belongs pre-eminently to the high
god, Zeus himself. At this point it is interesting to
mark the contrast between the old religion of Greece,
which at an early period had developed the faith in
concrete personal deities of highly hidividual type,
and the vaguer Roman religion which dealt rather
with " numina " and shadow-powers. The family
morality of Rome was mainly safeguarded by the

1 Schol. Eurip.j Phoen., 1760.


religious regard for the ancestral spirits, whose wrath
would be incurred by the son who injured his father
or the husband who wronged his wife.^ The same
idea can indeed be found in certain passages of Greek
literature — in Plato's Laws, for example, where he
dogmatises about the concern of the spirits of the
dead in the maintenance of family duties. But all
the morality of the Greek family is gathered up and
centred in Zeus. Pie is TeviOXio^, the chief of the
0eoi FepeOkiOL. As Harpcoo^ he guards the father's
right ; as 'O/^dyz^io? he protects the tie of brothers
and of other near kinsmen. These are not idle titles
of poetic fancy, but express the most vital beliefs of
Greek worship. The injured kinsman, father, son, or
cousin, could invoke the god by such names, and the
invocation would have the force of a magic spell in
arousing the divine wrath against the wrong-doer ;
in fact, these names are veritable words of power
drawn from the depth of the religious sentiment that
gave life and force to the ancient family system.
Zeus is called the kinsman, not because he is neces-
sarily believed to be of kin to a particular family ;
he is called ITarpwog by Strepsiades in the Clouds of
Aristophanes, when his son assaults him, not because
Zeus is the real ancestor of Strepsiades, but because the
injured kinsman or the injured father needs the aid
of Zeus, and in order to compel him to hear, imputes
to him the human titles designating the relationship

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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 3 of 11)