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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and justification.

On the other hand, we discern here, as in many
other examples, with what pliancy and lightness the
brighter religion of Hellas, which by contrast is
sometimes called Olympian, adapted itself to the
changing needs of an advancing society.

1 Paus., viii. 34. 1-2.



So far we have been dealing with the phenomena
of a rehgion which, though capable of responding to
the higher moral aspirations and needs of an advan-
cing society, yet appears narrow in its extension and
straitened in its ideals by the limits of the city
area and of the society founded on the idea of clan-
kinship. If this is indeed the whole account of it,
it must seem a paradox to us who consider that
humanism is the special product of the Hellenic
spirit. And it is, in fact, by no means the whole
account. Students are familiar with the fact that
in the last centuries of Hellenic and Gra^co- Roman
history, Greek philosophy and the Roman imperial
power had engendered and fostered a cosmopolitan
ethic and a theory of the spiritual freedom of man-
kind, so that the harvest was ripe for the new world-
religion to reap. But it is less generally known and
admitted that the seeds were already germinating in
the remotely earlier periods of Greek thought and

The religion of the Homeric poems is not merely



tribal, not even merely civic. The high god and
some of those beneath him are recognised by all the
different tribes, even by the alien races of Asia
Minor. Zeus has. in fact, almost the status of a
world-deity, and his name becomes at times a synonym
for 0609, a vaguer designation of universal godhead ;
and many of Homer's religious utterances could be
adapted to a world-religion. His constant appellative
of Zeus, TTaTrjp avSpcjv re 6ea)i/ re, " the father of gods
and men," was certainly not interpreted in a physical
or literal sense. It is true that in another passage
the swineherd Eumaios, the highest type of Homeric
piety, laments that " Zeus doth not pity men after
that he hath brought them to the birth." ^ But
neither in Homer nor in Hesiod nor in early Greek
literature generally can we find any theological dogma
concerning the divine physical origin of man. The
phrase quoted above must be interpreted in a spiritual
sense, and it reveals to us the religious phenomenon
that is observable in many other societies, primitive
and advanced, that have evolved the belief in personal
deities ; the relations between men and the high god
are expressed in emotional terms borrowed from
human kinship. But the Homeric phrase has this
further interest, that it implies that this loving rela-
tionship unites all men, and even the other gods,
to Zeus.

Is this broad view peculiar to the great poetic
thinkers of this early age, or does it accord with
certain facts of the popular religion ? The numerous

1 Oci, '20. 201.


appellatives and invocations of the divinities which
appear to descend from an ancient period, whenever
they seem to bear a local or ethnic sense, generally
reveal the ancient tribal spirit and the narrowness
of the small community. But the most interesting
of these is 'OXt^/xttio?, and the history of its diiFusion,
if we could trace it with certainty, might disclose a
certain force making for unity within the religion.
The epithet doubtless arose in the earliest period of
the Hellenic migrations from the north, when certain
tribes were settled in the north of Thessaly in the
neighbourhood of Olympos. But by the time of
Homer, as the poems are witnesses, it had lost its
local significance and had become, we may almost
say, a Panhellenic invocation of the supreme god,
and we may also believe that it had penetrated at an
early date as an actual cult-name into the worship of
several cities that were far distant from the northern
'* Mount of God." Thus at Athens the cult of Zeus
Olympios was associated with a dim legend concern-
ing the North-Greek hero Deukalion.

The title, however, which in the later historic
period best expressed the ideal of a united Greece,
an ideal realised to some extent by its religion, but
never by its politics, was that of Zeus Panhellenios.
The history of this appellative coincides with the
history of the term Hellen. We know that this was
originally a name of a tribe or group of tribes settled
in or near the Thessalian Phthia ; that their ancestral
heroes were the Aiakidai, Aiakos, Telamon, Peleus,
Achilles ; and that, according to the legend, a branch


of this people settled in iEgina. The legend enshrines
a fact of early migration, for in ^gina we find later
the immemorial cult of Zeus 'EkXdvLos, with Aiakos
as his high priest. Perhaps by the seventh century
the name " Hellen " had passed from the tribal into
the national significance ; and not much later, we
must suppose, the name Zeus 'EWdvLo? was enlarged
into " Pan-hellanios," the title of " the God of all the
Hellenes." The cult became prominent, thanks to
the patriotism of the iEginetans and the miraculous
assistance given at Salamis by the Aiakidai, in the
period of the Persian invasion, when in their hour
of greatest need the Greek communities strove to
become united. And the Athenians, hard pressed
by the Persians, swear to the Spartans that they will
not be false to Zeus Panhellanios and the cause of
Hellas. But it seems that at some earUer period
than this the Megarians were aware of the cult and
of the legend that the good priest-king, Aiakos, had
ascended a mountain in their vicinity and had prayed
there on behalf of all Greece to Zeus Panhellanios
for the salvation of the peoples in a season of
drought,^ just as Delphi is said by Pindar to have
sacrificed " for fair Pan- Hellas " at a similar crisis.'-

Parallel with such a potentially national cult were
developed genealogical fictions, such as Hellen and
the sons of Hellen, the " eponyms " of the leading
stocks, fictions of some value for the religious
sense of kinship and the growing consciousness of

1 Paus., i. 44. 9. ^ Pceans, 6. 62.


This sense of fellowship, which rested also on
community of speech and social usages, w^as fostered
in various ways by religion, even in the times before
what we call history begins. In this respect the
influence of the great national games of Greece has
been generally appreciated. The origin of these was
in all cases partly religious, being consecrated to some
hero or higher deity — Zeus, Apollo, Poseidon. Men
from various and possibly hostile tribes might come
together to witness or partake in the contests, and to
join in the local worship which established a temporary
holy truce or " peace of god," nor do we ever hear of
these great gatherings being disturbed by discord or
bloodshed. The institution of the Olympic games
was of remote antiquity, and doubtless they contri-
buted something to the gradual emergence of the
idea of a Panhellenic Zeus. This was consecrated
by the world-masterpiece of Pheidias, the great statue
of the god in gold and ivory set up in the Olympian
temple in the fifth century, which a later writer^
describes as the image of a deity " mild and peaceful,
the god of a Hellas living in concord with itself."

Of equal importance for the possibility of national
union were the early Amphiktyones, or organisations
of different tribes and peoples for the protection and
management of some common temple ; and before
the idea of such a policy could have arisen, religion
must have overpassed the narrow tribal stage. The
salient and most interesting example of such an
Amphiktyony, a word which properly signifies " the

1 Dio Chrysost., Or., l'-2, p. 412 R,


union of the peoples who dwell around a temple,"
was the Delphic. What were the political condi-
tions that facilitated this union is a question that does
not concern us. What suggested to these Amphik-
tyones, who were originally organised to protect a
temple of Demeter near Thermopylae, to concern
themselves with Delphi, was the growth of the
oracle to a position of international importance, and
to this position it must have begun to approach in
the Homeric or pre- Homeric period. For the list of
the various members of the league reflects the ethnic
conditions of an age prior to the Ionic migrations
and the Dorian conquest of the Peloponnese, an age
also when the e^i^og or tribe rather than the Polls
was the dominating factor of society.^ The oath
taken by the members, preserved ' by ^schines,
bound them " not to destroy any city of the league,
not to cut any one of them off from spring-water,
either in war or peace, and to war against any who
violated these rules." The oath may have been
broken, and Demosthenes might speak slightingly of
" the Delphic shadow " ; but the text, which has the
ring of genuine antiquity, is a priceless document of
Greek social-religious history, for it proclaimed, how-
ever falteringly, the ideal of an intertribal morality
and concord. On a large scale this was never realised
in the tragic history of Greece ; nevertheless the un-
realised aspirations of any religion retain their value.

The whole history of the Delphic oracle much con-
cerns our present interest. I have dealt with it in some

1 Fide my Cults, vol. iv. pp. 182-185.



fullness elsewhere/ and can here only glance at its
main effects. Certain legends pointedly suggest that
it had assisted the Doric migration into the Pelopon-
nese ; and at least from the eighth century onwards
it is the most potent Panhellenic force in Greek
religious institutions. It directed the counsels of
States, and had at times the opportunity of inspiring
their legislation ; it fostered and aided by invaluable
advice the expanding colonisation of Greece, and was
able thereby to bind the new colonies by indissoluble
ties to Delphi. It might claim even to dispose of
territory. In religious matters its influence was of
the greatest, and it helped to diffuse a general system
of purification from bloodshed ; and when after the
fifth century its political authority waned, it served
in some sort as a confessional whereto troubled and
conscience-stricken minds might resort. The records
almost, in fact, suggest an ambition on the part of
Delphi to play the same part in relation to the Greek
cities as the mediaeval papacy played in relation to
the States of Christendom. But an ecclesiastic
domination was rendered impossible in Greece,
partly by the absence of genius at Delphi, but
mainly by the stubborn independence and centri-
fugal instincts of the Greek Polls. Finally, we may
note one historic fact in the history of Delphi, that
may have been of importance for the expansion of the
horizon of Greek religion. In the seventh and sixth
centuries a great non- Hellenic power, the monarchy
of Lydia, is found to be consulting and courting the

1 Vide Cults, vol. iv. pp. 179-218.


favour of the Delphic Apollo. An impulse was thus
given to the birth of an idea that the sphere of god-
head was not limited to the tribe, not even to the
nation in our sense of the word, but might embrace
all mankind. But it was not till a later period that
Greek thought showed itself wholly free to make this
momentous advance.

It is true to say, then, that at no epoch of Greek
society that we can yet discover was Greek religion
wholly confined within the bonds of clan, tribe, or
city. Nor does it appear at any time to have been
true of Greek morality that its outlook was limited
to the circle of kindred and did not include the alien
and stranger. One of the clearest proofs of this is
the great antiquity of the ritual of oath-taking and
of the moral feeling about perjury as a primary sin
against the divinity in whose name a person was
forsworn. The ancient religious ceremony of the
oath has a peculiar interest on two grounds : first, it
was a form of communion between the oath-taker
and the divine power invoked ; for, as more than one
passage in the Homeric poems and the record of the
old Attic ritual in the Court of the Areopagus attest,
the person at the moment of swearing put himself
into touch or rapport with some object that estab-
lished a mystical current between himself and the
divinity, and perhaps in the most primitive stage of
thought the curse set in motion by perjury, as in the
ordeal, was spontaneously destructive or blasting ;
later this idea would pass into the higher theistic
thought that the wrath of a righteous god was


awakened by it. Secondly, in this religious act, and
perhaps in this alone, the status of the contracting
parties was not considered at all ; an oath sworn
to an alien or even a slave was as binding as one
sworn to a kinsman or a tribesman, according to the
religious logic of the ceremony. And the public
oath taken between ahen tribes, or houses, or com-
munities was no doubt of as great antiquity as the
private between individuals. The morality that
was associated with it was never bound by the
limitations of kinship and community of status :
thus it quickened the sense that the deity punished
wrongs committed against aliens, at least under
certain conditions.

We here see religion originating a great principle of
international law, the sanctity of treaties and of pledges
given to the alien. We may discern it also operative
in the same sphere, at the dawn of Greek society, by
investing the person of the herald or ambassador with
an inviolable sanctity. The herald bore the Ky^pvKeiov,
the badge of Hermes, and thus he could pass safely
through hostile lands ; for injury done to him would
be, as Plato asseverates,^ sacrilege against Zeus and
Hermes ; and we discover the same principle at work
in the religious law of early Rome. Thus it was that
religion was able to win recognition for one of the
most enduring ideas of international ethics. How
strong was the hold of this law on the conscience of
Greece in the fifth century is well attested by the
story in Herodotus^ of the divine punishment that
1 Laws, p. 941 A. 2 7, 134.


befell the Spartans for the slaughter of the Persian

There were other ways in which religion could assist
the growth of a morality that transcended the ancient
limitations of the kinship-groups. The curse-power
embodied in the personal 'Apa or Erinys was an im-
memorial weapon of the wronged, and might be
imagined as no respecter of persons. Practically,
this was not wholly true : those of greater authority,
the father and mother or elder brother of the house-
hold, the ruler of the tribe or State, were believed to
possess the greater power of the curse ; and we have
noted already the significance of the words, " Thou
knowest that the Erinyes ever follow the lead of the
elder born." Yet Homer himself conceives the
possibility that the Erinyes might hearken to the
curse of the lowly, and even a beggar might, if
wronged, arouse them.^ Tlie later religious literature
occasionally associates the Erinyes with a vague
moral supervision of mankind. In the vision of
Sophocles, as we have seen, they are powers that have
an eye over all the sufferings of men. But this pro-
vident care belonged in the later religion not to these
ancient curse-spirits but to the high god, and the curse
becomes moralised as the prayer. Already in Homer
the idea is clearly expressed that God listens to the
prayers of all who are aggrieved, regardless of status or
race : in the famous speech of Phoinix, the prayers are
" the daughters of Zeus. They bring great blessings
to him who reverences them ; but if a man ruthlessly

1 Od., 17. 475.


repel them, they mount to the throne of God and
appeal against that man, that bane may come to him."^
In early society, public morality mainly follows
the lead of religion ; and such religious utterances as
these could gradually quicken a public conscience
that would reprobate wrongs done to aliens and to
those of no political rights, whom no State-law or
tribunal could protect. We cannot give the date of
this momentous first step towards a world-morality.
We have seen the germs of it in Homer ; but we
would like to know more exactly when, for instance,
the idea began to permeate the average conscience of
the Greek community that the slaying of an unpro-
tected and harmless alien was a sin against God and
a crime against the society within whose borders he
was slain. Doubtless it was felt as a sin and excited
"nemesis," or moral indignation, before any public
law made it penal ; for of this latter stage in the
history of ethics our first record is as late as the
fourth century. I have suggested above, that the
stronger sense in the post-Homeric society of the
terrors of the ghost-world might have assisted the
establishment of a law against the slaying of aliens.
But long before this the cult of Zeus " Xenios," the
god who protects the stranger and the wanderer, an
ancient cult attested by the Homeric poems, had
done all that religion could do to expand the moral
feelings of the tribe beyond the tribal limits.'^ In

1 //., 9. 508.

2 Oc?., 14. 57: Trpos yap Ato5 ctcrii/ aTravres iecvoL re irroixot tc ;
Od., 14. 283 : Ato? 8' wtti'^cto /xrjviv Hetvt'ov.


the better minds, doubtless, the moral conscience
responded ; in fact, an awakening moral sympathy
with the stranger may have assisted in engendering
the cult. The average moral and religious feeling of
Homer's society may be illustrated by the ironical
words of the good swineherd Eumaios : " Truly with
a cheerful heart should I proffer my prayers to Zeus,
were I to slay the stranger whom I had received in
my hut."^ In fact, Homer anticipates the view of
the later humane society and ethic of Greece, the
view expressed, for instance, by Plato in a striking
passage of the L,aws^ where he speaks of the friend-
less stranger as of all objects the most pity-moving
in the eyes of gods and men, and of wrongs done to
him as sacrilege awakening the vengeance of God.

Hospitality leads to friendship, and these are
humanistic forces impatient of the barriers of status
and kinship. No race has ever manifested a greater
genius for friendship than the Hellen ; his sentiment
concerning it was partly moral, partly religious, and
often wholly romantic ; and it was quite natural for
Aristotle to devote two books of his ethical treatise
to the subject of friendship. The Greek tended
always to find a place in his religion for whatever he
felt passionately about ; and that is why Greek re-
ligion reflects so vividly the emotions and sentiments
of the individual. Therefore he devised a religious
consecration for friendship, by such invocations of

1 Od., 14. 405.

2 P. 729 E ; c/. a passage of similar tenor quoted by Stobaeiis^
bk. 44, ch. 40, from the prooemia of Charondas.


Zeus as OiXto? 'Eratpeto?, or of Apollo as ^LXyj(TLo<;.
Whether at any time the Hellenes possessed, as some
have supposed, the magical quasi-sacramental rite of
swearing friendship by the mutual quaffing of each
other's blood in wine, a rite not yet wholly extinct
among the Teutonic peoples, is a question about
which we have no clear evidence ; but it appears
that the common libations offered at friendly ban-
quets might be considered to constitute a religious
bond of fellowship. Thus we find a special associa-
tion of fellow-banqueters, ipavLarai, who worship
Zeus ^t\to9 at Athens,^ and such societies, or epavoi
as they were called, did not limit their member-
ship to kinsmen or citizens, but often included aliens.
And this cult of Zeus Philios, a peculiar product of
a genial people to which we cannot find a parallel
among the adjacent races, was given the widest
humanistic sense by the later interpreters : most note-
worthy are the words of Dio Chrysostom : " God is
called 0t\to9 and 'Eraipeco? (the god of friendship
and fellowship) because he brings all mankind into
union, and desires that they should be friends one
with another."^

In concluding this inquiry into those factors of
Greek religion that fostered the more expansive
sentiment of humanism, whereby the religious spirit
is released from the fetters of clan and tribe, we may
consider the influence of the divine name in the
polytheism. The magic or mystic power of the

^ Corp. Ins. Grcec, 2. 1330.
- Or., \^2, Dind., ]). 237.


divine name is a phenomenon of great moment in
the history of rehgions, and much has already been
written on this subject and on the text " iiomina sunt
numina.'' ^

The old Hellenes possessed this belief in the magic
value of the divine name for the purposes of conjura-
tion and invocation, though there is reason for think-
ing that in their more virile period they were less in
bondage to it than were the surrounding peoples. At
any rate the floating and vague conceptions of divinity
were fixed and crystallised for the Hellene by the force
of the divine names into clear and definite personalities.
And the fact with which we must reckon in the
earliest period of their history, that the great names
of Zeus, Apollo, Poseidon, Hera, Athena, Artemis
were a common heritage of the most widely scattered
communities and tribes, was indeed the strongest
obstacle to the growth of monotheism ; but, on the
other hand, was a strongly efficient principle of unity
in the religion. A divinity called by the same name
in Attica and Arcadia might be composite of many
different local elements, and absorb different traditions
from the varying religious emotions and experience
of the aboriginal populations. Yet in the great
centres of cult, among the leading peoples and in
respect of the leading divinities, the identity of the
divine names constrained the Hellenic mind to a
certain synthesis of religious imagination ; whereof
the final issue was that there was one Apollo, not

1 Vide Giesebrecht, Die AU-testamentliche Schdtzung des Gottes-
namens; and my Evolution of Religion , pp. 183-19'^.


many Apollos, one Dionysos, not many Dionysoi.^
Nor is there anything that hints at a behef even in
the least-informed minds of Hellas that the Apollo
of Athens or Sparta or Branchidai was a different
personality from the Apollo of Delphi : nor, so long
as the identical divine name was in vogue, any trace
of that savage weakness of intellect and imagination
that makes for particularism and the plurality of
personality, such as is attested of certain villages in
Italy, whose inhabitants possess different and rival
images of the Madonna, and are capable of regarding
the one Virgin as hostile to the other, losing entirely
the idea of personal unity.

On the other hand, the later Greek at least was
not so spell-bound by the magic of the name but
that he was capable of the humane and tolerant idea
that seemed so hard for the Semitic mind of Israel
to grasp — namely, that mankind might worship the
same godhead under different names : hence, as he
came into the larger society of a world-empire and
into closer contact with Oriental peoples, he was
able with pliancy and sincerity to identify his Zeus
with their Baal or their Amun, his Demeter with
their I sis, his Dionysos with their Jahwe. The
crudest fanaticism and the most savage religious
wars have been stimulated partly by this fallacious
sentiment concerning the magic of names. The
Greek escaped all this, nor did any religious war in
the true sense of the word stain the pages of Greek

1 The idol of Athena in Troy is regarded as embodying the same
personality as the Hellenic Athena who is the chief foe of Troy.


history ; and no unhappy logic compelled him to
degrade the deities of other peoples into the rank
of devils. If the modern man has arrived at the
conception that difference of divine title is of little
import, a conception of priceless value for the cause
of human unity, he owes it mainly, as Rome owed
it, to the mind of Hellas.

We may now consider certain special ideas in the
Greek conception of divinity that illustrate the higher
and broader view of a humanitarian religion.

A fundamental dogma of the old-world religious^
morality was that God rewards the good and punishes

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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 7 of 11)