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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governed by a morality that we call *' clannish " : the
clan must hold itself responsible for its individual,
and individualistic morality cannot yet come by its
own. " The sins of the fathers are visited upon the
children," a doctrine shocking to the modern ethical
conscience, but natural and inevitable from the older
point of view, which was that of tribal Israel and
tribal Hellas. And the sin of an individual could
bring a curse on his clan, which might pass through
many generations ; thus, even in the fifth century it
was still possible to propose that Pericles should be
banished from Athens because of his descent from
that Megakles who, nearly two centuries before, had
committed sacrilege against the Cylonian suppliants.

Again, from this clan-morality, based on the sense
of the unity of life animating the whole group, arises
the idea of the moral justification of vicarious punish-
ment ; thus, it becomes just under certain conditions
to put hostages to death ; the modern savage, in
prosecuting the blood-feud, is content, if he cannot
slay the actual slayer, with taking the life of one of
his tribesmen ; Hammurabi, the earliest legislator of
civilised Babylon, condemns a man's son to death in
a special case for his father's fault ; the Spartans in


the fifth century invite volunteers to go to the Persian
king and die at his hands in atonement for the city's
outrage on the Persian heralds, and two patriots
offer themselves to set free the whole city from
guilt/ If we examine the details of advanced Attic
law concerning homicide, we shall discern linger-
ing traces of the old clan-morality, the communal
responsibility of the group.

But it has lingered longest in religion, which
more than any other part of the mental life of
man conserves and adapts the materials of ancient
sentiment. We recognise it in the formulas of the
curse invoked by the city on wrong-doers or by the
individual on himself: " May he and his descendants
come to a miserable end," is the most usually re-
curring phrase. But we recognise it most clearly in
one most important manifestation — in the religious
theory of vicarious piacular sacrifice, the sacrifice of a
human or animal life for the community. For the true
moral appreciation of this we must distinguish it from
the scapegoat ceremonies,^ which are logically nothing
more than a magic transference of sin into the body
of the man or the animal that is then driven away
into the wilderness and not necessarily put to death.
Of vicarious sacrifice proper there are two piacular
types : one that is wholly non-moral, in which the
life offered is that of an alien or of a little-valued

1 Herod., 7. 134.

" This does not appear to be realised with sufficient clearness
in Dr Frazer's long and interesting record of such ceremonies,
Golden Bough,^ vol. iii. pp. 93-134.


animal, and such a rite seems to rest ultimately on
the savage idea that the offended deity demands
blood and is indifferent as to the quality of the blood
that he receives ; the other is the higher type that
alone concerns us here, in which, when the people
have sinned, a valued life is offered for an atonement
which may be efficacious in the eyes of a morally
vindictive deity, because the life is closely akin to
the life of the community, so that according to the
communal view all die and atone through the death
of their representative kinsman. This is the inward
meaning of the Greek legends concerning the volun-
tary self-immolation of the king's son or daughter,
a noble youth or noble maiden ; the nobler the
kindred of the victim, the stronger is the tie that
links it to the community and the more potent is the
efficacy of this communal atonement — most potent
when the victim offers himself or herself of free-will.
Or if the victim be an animal, it may be possible by
a fiction to identify the animal with the life of the
community : thus, in the legend of the piacular
sacrifice to Artemis of Brauron in Attica, the father
offered a goat but called it his daughter.

This higher type of vicarious sacrifice is a heritage
bequeathed to the higher religions from the older
stage of communal ethics and psychology, and has
never been reconciled with the more advanced
theories of individual responsibility.

A few other examples are worth noting of the
influence of the family-religion of the city upon
average Hellenic morality. Their close association


leads at once to this, that family-duty and State-duty
could not be imagined to clash ; celibacy was un-
patriotic ; the best citizen was the married man with
children, he could best speak to the enemy in the
gate ; the words of an Attic comedian of the fourth
century, Timokles, quoted by Stobseus, reveal the
same ethical point of view : "He who fears and
reverences his father is reasonably the good citizen,
and is able to do most harm to the enemies of the
State." ^ For the same reason, as we have seen, the
State-theory concerning sexual morality looked only
to the preservation of the monogamic marriage and
the rearing of healthy children ; it could not recognise
any abstract value in barren chastity, except rarely
for religious purposes ; and the gulf between ancient
and modern morality in this respect is well illustrated
by those stories that ascribe to Solon the public
organisation of courtesans and impute to the austere
Cato an approval of such a system as a safeguard
against the danger of adultery in the family.

It would be a long and laborious task to track out
the varied relations between the religion and the
philosophic ethic of Greece : the correlation is most
discernible in the moral writings of Plato ; most
difficult to trace in the Ethics of Aristotle, which is
the first great secular treatise on the subject and is
for the most part constructed without any obvious
religious idea ; yet as Kant's Ethics reflects unmistak-
ably the traits of Protestantism and of the Old Testa-
ment, so the bright and human philosophy of the

1 Florileg.j ed. Meineke, vol. iii. p. 83.


Greek thinker, wherein social virtues and social
graces are happily blent in his civic ideal, is toned
by the atmosphere of the religion of the Greek Polis,
that fellowship of families and kindreds.

We may now consider some salient examples of
the consecration by religion of the higher civic life
and morality. The primary public duty was to
defend the city's hearths and temples ; and we may
suppose that to fight for Athens was to fight for
Athene, if at least we can trust a text in a drama
of Euripides, a phrase more virile and of stronger
pitch than most of his verses : " O sons of Athens !
if ye cannot stay this stubborn spear of the men
sprung from the dragon's teeth, the cause of Pallas
is overthrown " : ^ it is thus that Theseus encourages
his men in the great battle against the Thebans.
The 0eol TTarpoiOL were remembered in Nikias' pas-
sionate exhortations before the last agony in the
harbour of Syracuse, and the religious appeal doubt-
less came home to his followers. In the Babylonian
religion the connection between the deity and his
temple was so intimate that if the enemy destroyed
his temple or city, the deity appears sometimes to
have been imagined as losing all powers and flitting
impotently away like a bird to the sky. Now, the
divinities of Greek polytheism are too robust and
enduring to fear such extinction, nor is their life and
power regarded as depending wholly on their favourite
temple or State, partly because each of them — as soon
as we come to know them at all — is found worshipped

^ Siipplices, 711.


by more communities than one. Yet Athena suffers
with the sufferings of her citizens and intercedes with
Zeus to avert their ruin.

Neither in Greek ethics nor Greek rehgion can
we say that courage apart from its patriotic exercise
on the battlefield receives any recognition ; and
Aristotle's very narrow definition of it is justified
in his civic theory of morality. As regards religion,
it is not easy to find either in cult-record or religious
literature any direct consecration of this particular
virtue. Homer might describe the brave man as
dear to Ares, but Ares was not dear to the Greeks,
personifying as he did only the Berserker-rage of
battle, which was a temper of mind always uncon-
genial to the average Hellene. Nor can we discover
any morality at all in the worship of Ares. It
is otherwise with Athena: she stood for the ideal
of tempered and disciplined courage devoted to
patriotic ends ; the dying savagery of Tydeus — who
fastened his teeth in the skull of his enemy, as does
the revengeful spirit in Dante's Inferno — disgusts her,
and she withdraws from him the boon of immortality
which she had promised him as a reward for his
lifelong valour. The story comes from the post-
Homeric epic, but we can find at least one passage
in Homer's poems expressing the belief that well-
tempered bravery wins her regard : in the battle
against the Suitors she only gives the victory to
Odysseus and his son when they have satisfied her
in the test of valour. But the closest association of

this virtue with religion was attained by the practice



of awarding heroic honours to the patriot who
fought and died bravely for his country. Apart
from the cults of mythic heroes, we find this practice
of rare occurrence, and the earhest examples of it
not earlier than the fifth century b.c. The Greeks
who fell at Platasa and Marathon received heroic
honours en masse ; and a few at least of the bravest
of the three hundred Spartans at Thermopylae. We
have had strong proof from Japan of the social value
of ancestor-w^orship and of the ennobling of the dead ;
and w^e need not doubt that the prospect of such
posthumous honours would make the strongest appeal
to the self-love of the Hellene and w^ould afford a
powerful motive to conduct.

With patriotism was hnked the ideal of freedom
or the immunity of the city and the individual from
alien control. Its realisation did not so much con-
stitute a special virtue as create an atmosphere in
which alone all virtue, moral and intellectual, could
breathe and Hve. This idea, to which Homer first
gave voice,^ remained in full vigour till the civic
system began to decay, when the free-thinkers and
the philosophers came at last to admit the possibility
of virtue in a slave. ^ The religious consecration of
this noble civic passion was the cult of Zeus Eleu-
therios, of which we have early record in an archaic
inscription of Laconia, but which received its chief

1 " Zeus takes away the half of a man's virtue, when the day of
slavery befalls hhn " : Od., 17. 322.

2 A fragment of Euripides' play Melanippe (Dind., 514, 515)
is an early example of the more liberal thought.


stimulus from the Hellenic victories over Persia.
Simonides is our witness : " Having driven out the
Persian, they raised an altar to Zeus the Free, the
glorious token of Hellenic freedom." The same
cult was often instituted to commemorate deliverance
from domestic tyranny. Have we here merely an
example of the eager, self-inspired spirit of the
Hellene, who imputes instantly to his deity a
sympathy with his strongest passion ? Even if this
were the whole account of it, we would not therefore
regard such cults as mere religious fictions, coldly
commemorative of facts that had happened and
things that had been achieved. The Greek even of
the fifth century was quick to believe that any over-
mastering emotion — such as sex-love, or the love of
liberty, or the feehng of pity — drew its life from some
divine source ; the theistic expression of this belief
would be such cults as Zeus Eleutherios, a daimon-
istic expression would be the worship of Autonomia
or Eleutheria itself, which we occasionally find. But
there was more in the cult that we are considering
than the mere consecration of the Greek passion for
freedom. We read that a necessary religious act
after the expulsion of the defeated barbarian from the
soil of Greece was the purification of the temples that
they had polluted ; and that for this purpose sacred
fire was fetched hurriedly from Delphi. Wherein
did the pollution consist ? The deliberate destruction
and desecration of the Akropolis of Athens was an
exceptional act of policy on the part of the Persians ;
but they did not behave thus to other temples, nor


was it consonant with their reUgious principles to do
so ordinarily. The Greeks, then, must have felt that
their holy places were naturally polluted by the mere
presence of the barbaric host in or about them ; and
this was a feeling proper to the tribal and family
theory of religion, which logically carries with it the
exclusion of the ahen. Therefore such cults as that
of Zeus the Free were suggested by an essential
rehgious principle ; and the morality of patriotism
drew from a religious source.

In one centre of this cult^ we find the goddess
'Ofxovoio., the goddess of civic concord and fellowship,
associated with Zeus ; and it is interesting to observe
the various ways in which religion was able to foster
and safeguard that most essential virtue of the civic
life, the harmony of the citizens, whereby the blood-
feud that was wont to rage between the independent
clans might be banished from the circle of the city.
In fact, the relation between Greek religion and law
and morality can nowhere be so fruitfully studied as
in tracing out the records of Hellenic law and senti-
ment concerning murder. And in the history of no
other society, so far as I am aware, can we follow
out so clearly the evolution of a quasi-secular criminal
law from religious sources. I have given elsewhere ^
an exposition of this ; but I may here restate what
appear to be the leading factors in the development
of the Greek law of homicide.

A glance at the enactments concerning this vital

1 Thebes, C. /. G., l624.

2 Evolution of Religion, pp. 139-152.


matter in civilised Athens of the fourth century
reveals a deep religious colouring; and doubtless
we should find the same in the codes of the other
States, if we knew them so well. To understand
this, we must be able to penetrate far back into
the ancient days of Greece, at least as far as
Homer. His poems present us with a society that
has advanced far indeed beyond the merely tribal
stage, but that is still dominated, more strongly than
the later commonwealths, by the old clan-morality.
For him and his contemporaries murder might be a
sin, but could never be a crime, that is, a wrong
committed against the State for which the State itself
Avould take vengeance. It might be a sin to^slay a
herald, because the herald bore the protecting badge
of Hermes ; it was a sin to slay a suppliant, because
the suppliant was in touch with the hearth-goddess
or with Zeus the guardian of strangers ; it was doubt-
less a heinous sin to slay a kinsman, an act that
awakened the wrath of the Erinyes and of the gods of
kinship. The ancient legends are more explicit on
this point than any clear words of Homer, who
mentions three cases only : the parricide of (Edipus,^
and his persecution by the Erinyes without any
allusion to his expulsion from Thebes ; the story of
Epeigeus, who slew his cousin and fled as a supphant
— perhaps for purification — to Peleus and Thetis; '^ and
finally the deed of Thepolemos, who dehberately slew
his cousin and whom his own kinsmen intended to
put to death. ^ It is doubtful if this would be the

1 Od., 11. 273. 2 //,^ 16. 571. ^ //., 2. 665.


usual punishment in Homeric times, as the kin would
thus commit the same grievous act of shedding
kindred blood : and Plutarch tells us that actually in
his own time in Boeotia the slayer of a kinsman was
not put to death but driven into perpetual exile.
And this seems to have been the case in regard to
Bellerophon, who accidentally slew his brother, of
whom Homer vaguely says : *' He wandered about
the Aleian plains, eating his own soul."^ The slayer
of his kin flies from society, with a curse upon him,
of which the Erinyes are the personal expression.
This is a curious example of the punishments of
conscience being earlier than the punishments of law ;
and this is not the modern conscience of civilised
man, but the tribal or family conscience that thrills
with mysterious horror at the shedding of kindred
blood, but is not at all stirred by the ordinary slaying
of an alien ; which in Homeric and many other early
societies is neither a sin against the gods nor a crime
against any State, but only means a serious affair with
the alien's kinsmen, the blood-feud or the composition
by the were-gild.

The sacredness of kindred life was closely associated
in Greek societies with the cult of Zeus Meilichios ;
the god whose wrath the sinner who has slain his
kinsman must avert, and who therefore in that
optimistic faith natural to early prayer is called " the
merciful," though his rites were gloomy. There is
no reference to such a god, nor clearly to such
a religious idea, in the Homeric poems ; yet in

1 //., 6. 200.


the records and legends about him there is much
that has an air of great antiquity, and we shall
not easily believe that the Greek conscience, brooding
on this heinous matter, found no religious ex-
pression till the post-Homeric period. But it seems,
to have been in this period and not earher thatj
that momentous advance to a wider conception oi
the sin of murder was made, whereby the whole
free life within the city was safeguarded by the sense
of the sacredness of kindred blood. Theoklymenos
in the Odyssey, who has slain a member of his
own society — avhpa /cara/cra? e^^v\ov — had merely to
fear the ordinary blood-feud of the kinsmen, and
is welcomed by Telemachos without scruple as a
desirable companion.^ But later the happy fiction
that the various tribes and clans aggregated in the
Polls were ultimately of kindred stock did signal
service here ; so that the slaying of any citizen
became regarded as the shedding of kinsman's blood ;
the first testimony to this advanced thought is found
in the poem called the Aithiopis by Arktinos of
Miletus : Achilles, who slays the worthless Thersites
— no blood-relation of his, but still a member of the
same large community — has to retire from the army
for a while, to be purified by Apollo in Lesbos ; the
atonement is not yet secular, but religious merely ; at
the same time it attests a deeper sense than had
hitherto prevailed of the sacredness of life within
the civic area. And henceforth any civic blood-
shed is an offence against Zeus Meilichios ; it is he

1 Od., 13. 272.


to whom the Argives in the fifth century, weary of
civic massacre, atone with cult and statue.

Another religious —or, at least, supernatural — force
that must be reckoned with in any account of the
progress of Hellenic morality and law in this vital
social interest, the sanctity of human life, is the
reverence for the departed spirit, the fear of the
wrath of the ghost, the conviction of the super-
natural power of the dead. This sentiment, com-
\bined often with actual cult of the dead, I believe
to be pre-Homeric ; half-ignored, perhaps disliked,
by Homer, it asserts itself as a strong and con-
structive social force in the post- Homeric Greek
communities. The anger of the ghost of the slain
becomes a danger to the whole community among
whom the slayer resides ; and this idea is independent
of the narrow limitations of the old morality of clan
or tribe ; the ghost of any citizen, or even of a
resident alien, becomes a local peril to the living ;
therefore society will begin to feel indignant at the
slaying even of an alien, and then to make it
punishable by law. To this lower religious sense
rather than to the stimulus of higher theistic religion
I would attribute the great achievement of Attic
law, the protection of the life of the slave, which by
the fifth century, if not earlier, had become legally
safeguarded. And it is to this motive that the
orators appeal when they address an Attic jury
on a case of homicide ; endeavouring at times to
secure a verdict against the accused by threatening
them with the wrath of the ghost if they acquit


him.^ One of the most interesting examples of the
working of this belief is provided by the closing scene
of Euripides' Hippolytos : the dying hero forgives his
father Theseus, and absolves him from the stain of his
death that the latter had unwittingly caused ; the
father bursts out into expressions of admiration,
gratitude, and delight which our modern sentiment
misunderstands. How can his dying son absolve
him from stain ? It is really on behalf of his ghost
that Hippolytos makes this promise : the ghost shall
in this case forgive, shall not haunt his father nor
drive him from the land.

But ghosts were mainly vindictive and unforgiving ;
it was they who were responsible for much that was
inequitable and uncouth in the Attic code concern-
ing accidental homicide ; the person who slew another
unintentionally and quite innocently must yet flee
from the land for a season till the kinsmen forgave,
and could persuade the ghost to cease from troubling.
Therefore ghost-fear and ghost-cult, while intensify-
ing the sanctity of human life, might act as a barrier
against progress towards a more equitable law.

Here the higher religion came to aid : it conse-
crated the awakening moral sense that motives, inten-
tion, and circumstances qualify a moral action, that
not all man-slaying is equally guilty, that justifying
and extenuating facts may be pleaded. Such cults as
that of Athena K^ioiroivo^,^ the goddess of righteous

1 Cf. Antiphon, TetraL, i. 3. 10.

2 In Sparta associated with a legend of justifiable homicide, the
slaying of Hippokoon and his sons by Herakles (Pausan., iii. 15. 6).


homicide, such cult-legends as those associated with
the Attic law-courts, inl UaWaSCco, named after
Pallas' statue, eVt /\€\(f)LVL(p, named after Apollo
Delphinios, where pleas of accidental and justifiable
homicide were respectively tried, show Greek religion
sanctioning, if not evoking, a higher morality and a
higher law concerning murder. I have suggested
elsewhere,^ and the suggestion still seems to me
reasonable, that religion was able to render this aid
indirectly through the growing demand that was
heard louder in the later centuries for purification
from all bloodshed, however the taint was incurred.
The Apolline worship becomes the main medium of
purification ; but the Apolline priesthood might grant
or refuse this service, whereby alone the homicide
could regain his place in society, according to the
circumstances of the slaying ; but such power would
not be likely to remain long in their hands, and local
courts would be estabUshed to try the circumstances.
The secular claim of the State begins to be heard,
and yet the State-courts that tried this offence retain
the deep imprint of religion.

This advance that we have been considering marks
an inestimable gain for equity and ethics ; and it was
associated by certain links with the worships of Zeus,
Athena, and Apollo. We can dimly surmise that the
old chthonian religion was long adverse to it; the realm
of the earth-spirits and the ghosts cherished rather
the grim vindictiveness of the old clan-morality that
acknowledges no plea, and the atmosphere of this

1 Kiolution of Religion, p. 144; Cults, vol. iv. p. i^gs, etc.


dark world was not favourable to the seeds of social
progress. Though the black goddesses of vengeance
might here and there be imagined to turn white,^
yet such powers were *' hard to reconcile." Themis,
originally the double of the earth-goddess, must be
detached from Ge and attached to Zeus or Athena,
before she could stand as the religious impersonation
of righteous law according to the higher standard
of civilised Greece. The great ^Eschylean drama of
the trial of Orestes presents the Erinyes as the repre-
sentatives of the lower morality of blind vengeance
as against the higher that admits the plea of right

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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 6 of 11)