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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the evil ; and scarcely any of the higher religions have
been able to dispense with the doctrine that the Deity
is a God of vengeance, who proclaims His nature in
the phrase " Vengeance is Mine." Whatever we may
think of it, it played a most efficient part in the con-
struction and preservation of the morality of the
ancient societies, and it still appears as a living belief
among ourselves. The Greek in this respect stood
on the same level with the Roman, the Israelite, and '
the Mesopotamian man. The belief vividly presented
in his earliest literature that Zeus punishes the sinner
and avenges wrong was embodied also in various cult-
titles, by which the god was invoked, such as TLfjia)p6<;,
YlaXaixvoLo^, 'AXacrTo/309, various names for " the
avenger," with a special reference to vengeance for
bloodshed, that law which formed the basis of Greek
society and of much of Greek religion. Human society
is thus reflected into the heavens, and morality gained
something from the reflection ; for the belief in God


as the avenger has sometimes been used to soften
human vindictiveness.^ With it was closely asso-
ciated in the Greek mind the belief in the righteousness
and justice of God, and no religion has ever exalted
justice to a higher place in its system than was given
it in the Hellenic. Dike was personified as the
daughter of Zeus, and such personification was no
mere fiction of the poets, but won its way at an
early time into popular art, and later into actual cult,
showing thus how powerful was the moral emotion
that inspired the personification. And we find some
of the most glowing imagination of Greek poetry
radiating upon this abstraction which for us appears
somewhat dull and on the whole uninspiring. A
modern could scarcely speak as Euripides, who praises
'* the golden-gleaming countenance of Justice, nor is
evening-star nor morning-star so wonderful as this."'
Yet in the higher popular religion and in the current
theologic theories the qualities of mercy and com-
passionateness are at least as prominent in their
conception of the highest divinity. The earliest
spokesman of the young Hellenic race felt deeply
the pity of things and adjudged pitifulness to be the
highest human and divdne attribute. Hence Apollo
is made to reproach the deities for tolerating the
mercilessness of Achilles.^ The speech of Phoenix,

^ Vide Sophocles' Electra, 1. 173-177: "My child, Zeus is still
great in heaven . . . leave to him thy exceeding bitter wrath,
and be not too full of rage against those thou hatest nor yet forget

2 P^ide Dindorf, Fragm., 490; Arist., Nicom. Eth., 5. 2. p. 1 1!29 h, 28.

2 //., 24>. S9, 45.


in which the famous passage about the power of
prayer is found, is full of striking illustration of the
same idea : " But, O Achilles ! bend thy mighty spirit ;
it behoveth thee not to bear a ruthless heart ; even
the gods, whose worth and honour and might are even
greater than thine, can be turned to pity." And there
is this further interest in these beautiful verses, that
the divine nature is held up as a moral standard for
man. Yet no words in Homer on this theme strike
so deep as the simple phrase in the speech of Zeus,
Ixikovo-L fjLOi 6X\vfji€i/oL TTEp,^ words untranslatable but
revealing the pity of the high god for our ephemeral
and sorrow-laden lives.

These are high thoughts and the expressions of a
delicate religious sentiment. And the later literature,
especially the Attic drama, full as it is of denuncia-
tions of God's wrath against sinners and of assurances
of the slow but ever-sure operation of justice, yet
dwells on and expands the conception of mercy. The
typical and most illustrative passage is in the CEdipus
Coloneus,^ part of Polyneikes' appeal for his father's
forgiveness : " Pity sits by the throne of Zeus, his
peer in power over all the deeds of men." And
we may find in the later literature, from the end
of the fifth century onwards, hints and sometimes
clear expressions of an ethical theory that approaches
the Christian doctrine concerning forgiveness of

The question is one of the most interesting, how
far this [more advanced spiritual idea was reflected

1 //., m 21. 2 1. 1275.


in the actual worship. The earhest expression of it
in this sphere is the appellative tfcerT^o-to?, the god
who hearkens to supplication, attached to Zeus by
Horner,^ who draws such epithets from a traditional
stock of liturgical invocations proper to the special
needs of the individual worshippers. It is curious
indeed to find that, in the one Homeric passage where
it occurs, this epithet which connotes mercy is also
associated with a special function of the divine
retribution — namely, with the wrath of the high
god against those who harm the suppliant, and
it is with this in view that Odysseus invokes the
god by this call. But mainly it is the merciful
nature of the god to which appeal is made by such
appellatives as t/cerT/o-to? and iKecrio^. The sinner
himself, not merely the victim of wrong, throws
himself upon the mercy of the deity ; and according
to a myth of the highest religious and ethical interest
preserved by iEschylus and Pherekydes, Ixion, who
treacherously murdered his father-in-law, and who is
the Cain of Greek legend, the first murderer, is also
the first suppliant. He wanders an outcast and finds
"his punishment too great for him to bear," till
Zeus T/ceVto? takes pity on him, purifies him, and
receives him into his divine fellowship. The story is
doubtless post-Homeric, at least in respect of its
peculiar ethical colouring ; as is also the myth of
the purification of Orestes by Apollo. But the
actual cult of Zeus, the suppliant's god, must be
older than Homer ; and an interesting form of it is

1 Od., 13. 217.


attested by a very archaic inscription found in Laconia,
mentioning the strange title of Zeus 'I/cctt^? as if
Zeus himself were the suppliant : this is a salient
example of that peculiar style of invocation in Greek
liturgy noticed above, whereby the appeal to the
deity was given a quasi-magical power by attaching
to him an appellative which applied properly to the
worshipper and expressed his needs.

The title just considered had always a close associa-
tion with the sin of bloodshed, which weighed heavily
on the more sensitive consciences of the later Greeks ;
but from the beginning it seems to have possessed,
and it always retained, the broader significance, and
it tended more than any other cult-fact to deepen
the conception of divine mercy. Of the same
spiritual value is the appellative AlSoZo?, " the
compassionate," which ^Eschylus attaches to his
supreme god in a noteworthy passage in the Sup-
plices ; ^ speaking of the suppliant fillets laid on the
altar as the " emblems of Zeus, the God of Pity."^
An important indication of the strong religious feeling
that 'centred in this emotion is the personification
and actual worship of AtSw? and "EXeog (Pity and
Compassion) as " numina " or daimonic powers making
for compassion. The record chiefly concerns Athens,
the " natio misericors," but we have some traces of
the cult of " pity " elsewhere.

It may be remarked, by the way, that the account

1 1. 192.

2 A cult-appellative, found later in Bithynia, Zeus Atrato?, the
God of Prayer, expresses the same spiritual concept.


of these personifications of moral ideas, mental moods,
and emotions is of importance for the general history
of Hellenic psychology and ethics : for only those of
the greatest intensity would be likely to impress the
mind as a divine agency.

The doctrine of divine mercy was sufficiently pro-
claimed in the popular literature, especially in the
drama, to have become a genuine tradition of the
popular Hellenic faith. Euripides, the secret scorner
of the polytheism and often the preacher of a pro-
founder religious theory, used a phrase that was
remembered, ov yap ao-vverov to Oeiov dXX' e)(€L avviivai,
"the divine power is not blunt-witted, but knows
how to make allowances."^ Interesting from the
same point of view is the popular story told by
Plutarch of the priest who, under special temptations,
broke his temporary obligation of chastity, and hur-
ried conscience-stricken to Delphi to learn by what
penance or religious rites he could escape the divine
wrath ; the oracle answered in a memorable verse :
*' anavTa TavayKOia (jvy}(0)peL 0e6<;,''^ " God pardons all
that is done under constraint," implying that there
are certain temptations which human nature is too
weak to resist.

It is natural to suppose that this conception of the
deity as by nature mild and forgiving reacted on the
traditional theory of divine vengeance, and on the
religious view of the mystery of evil. The moral
dogma, older in origin than the beginnings of their
recorded history, that the gods punish the sinner,

1 Ipk. AuL, 394. 2 piut., De Pyth. Orac, p. 404 B.


was often observed to be contradicted by experience ;
and Hellenic thought resorted to the same expedients
to reconcile faith with fact as the Hebrew : " God's
justice moves on silent ways."^ "The mills of God
grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small " ; ^
" God is not like a hasty-tempered man, venting His
anger at once on the occasion of every wrong " ;
" Justice visits some in the light of day, some in the
twilight of life's close," ^ — these are some of the
typical expressions of the thinkers of Greece, striving
to find a subtle justification for the belief in divine
providence. Very rarely was it justified by any
strong pronouncement of a doctrine of posthumous
punishments or of moral retribution after death, a
doctrine which scarcely touched the higher ethical
theory of Greece, though it was alive and prominent
in the mystic circles of Orphism. Rut the theory
which had most strongly affected the moral belief of
the people, and was long-enduring, was that which
maintained that the sins of the fathers were visited
upon the children of the later generations. And
this, as we have seen, was derived from the old
clan-system of morality ; and though it is embedded
in so much of Greek literature, and especially in the
Attic drama, it could never satisfy the higher ethical
speculation, and already in the sixth century Theognis
begins to protest against it.^

1 Eur., Troad., 887.

~ 6if/€ Oeojy aXiovcTL [xvXol, aXiovat Se AeTrra* to irapa rois TroAAots
.... X^yojxcx'ov. Sext. Empir., tt/oo? ypafXfxaTLKois, 287.

3 JEsch., Choepk., 6l-62.

4 1. 731-742.



But the very postulate of divine vengeance or
retribution was sometimes called into question by
the bolder or more profound thinkers, who challenged
the morality of the idea. Among the poets certain
phrases of Euripides on this topic are notable : " It is
not right for a god to be like a revengeful man," is
the protest of Agaue to the vindictive Dionysos ; ^ in
the Andromache the comment of the messenger on
the theory that the death of Neoptolemos at Delphi
was brought about by Apollo in revenge for Achilles'
insult to the god, is prompt and severe : " Then, Hke
a base-minded man, the god remembered ancient
grudges."^ Such utterances really contain the germ
of a new theology, more akin in character to the
Buddhistic than to Hebraic ; and we may imagine
them to have been inspired by the striking passage
near the beginning of the Odyssey, where Zeus pro-
claims it as a great truth that the gods never send
evil to men, as they falsely suppose, but that all evil
comes to men of their own evil choice, and from their
own depravity. This pregnant idea is systematised
into a dogma of later ethical philosophy : Demokritos,
for example, maintains the perfect excellence of the
deity, and refuses to allow a divine origin to any evil.^

The Pythagorean school is accredited^ with the
striking dogma : /SkdnTet 6eo^ ov ^(okoideis dXX' ayvorjOei<^,
opyrj yap 6eov aWoTpcov — " we are injured, not by the
anger of God, but by our ignorance of Him, for anger
is wholly alien to the nature of God."

1 Bacch,, 1348. 2 Androm., 11 64.

3 Stobae., Floril., 5. 24. ^ Miillach, i. p. 497.


The same idea inspires Plato's theory of human
and divine punishment as expounded in the early
part of his Republic : ^ he constructs it wholly on a
utilitarian educational basis ; he reprobates the
imputation of vengeance to God, and would regard
Kant's vindictive theory of punishment as barbarous
and immoral. In fact, it was the achievement of
Greek theologic speculation to rise above the Hebraic
concept of a god of vengeance.^

The philosophic optimism could never be wholly
adopted by the popular theology, which failed to
escape from the vindictive view of divine providence ;
but it corresponded on the whole with the popular
feehng that the divinity was in the main merciful and
beneficent. Greek religion did not recognise, as did «
the Mesopotamian, an evil God ; the numerous titles \
attached to its deities are, with one or two exceptions,
euphemistic and, we may say, philanthropic. Even
the unseen beings of lower grade called Saiixove^ were
not usually imagined by the people as maleficent, for
they included the kindly spirits of the departed, and
we note in the later period the cult of Agathos Daimon,
the good spirit of blessing and fertility. Yet even
in the Homeric poems, which are not wholly innocent
of the pessimistic thought that the high powers
themselves might tempt a man to sin, we find the

1 Cf. Phoedr., p. 247 A : ^66vo^ yap e^cu Oeiov xopov Icrr arai.

2 It is noteworthy that Plutarch counts the Jews among those
who do not believe in the goodness of God, on the ground, no
doubt, of certain vindictive passages in the Old Testament. — Moral. ,
p. 1051 e.


germ of the idea that sin and temptation come from
evil spirits ; for Homer's Ate is such an one. Later,
in spite of Menander's protest ^ that even the daimon
must be imagined as wholly good, the belief in evil
spirits grew in intensity, fortified, no doubt, by the
growing influence of magic ; and the belief permeated
deeply the later Neoplatonism and Pythagoreanism,
which drew largely from Orphic sources. It appears
strong, for instance, in Plutarch ; for whom, as for
others, it helped to solve the problem of evil in such
a way as to relieve the high gods from all responsi-
bility for it. A typical utterance, from this point of
view, is that which was attributed to Charondas in
the spurious proems of his Laws : " If a man is
tempted by an evil spirit, he should pray in the
temples that the evil spirit might be averted."-

The Greek had long been familiar with the fear of
certain dangerous unseen influences, which were to
be fended off by apotropasic rites ; but he did not
always imagine these as personal, nor did he often
moralise them : his Eris and Adikia had no strong hold
on the popular faith. Still less did either the popular
imagination or the speculation of philosophers exalt
the principle of evil into a majestic personality such
as Satan or Ahriman, on which a dualistic theology
and cosmology like the Persian might be constructed.

Hitherto we have been considering religion mainly
under its social and ethical aspects. But as Hellenism
meant more than a moral and orderly conduct of life,

1 Clem. Alex., Strom., 5, p. 260.

2 Stobae., Floril, 44. 20.


and two of its most potent forces were science and
art, so we find Greek religion takes more serious
cognisance of these than any other rehgion of the
world has ever done. As regards the rehgious con-
secration of Hellenic art the facts are familiar. In
the earlier period, when Greek art had reached the
heights of its renown, the greatest of its craftsmen
in respect of their most important commissions
worked for the State and for the deity. This is a
fact not uncommon in the history of other civilisa-
tions. What is much rarer is the religious pheno-
menon that the artistic interest enters as a divine
attribute into the characters of certain Hellenic
deities and establishes a fellowship between the
human craftsmen and the divine. Already in the
Homeric period the artist is imagined as one dear
to Athena : " He whose hands had all the carver's
cunning, for Pallas Athena loved him above all
men."^ The author of an Homeric hymn^ declares
that it was thanks to the arts of Hephaistos, the god
of the smithy-fire, that man was raised above the
level of the cave-dweller ; Plato speaks of the whole
race of craftsmen as sacred to Athena and Hephaistos ;
and in another and more fanciful passage he expresses
his beUef that these two divinities, '* in their love for
philosophy and art," chose Attica in the aboriginal
period as their home because this land " was specially
suitable for the development of excellence and

It is in the study of Greek music and of the

1 //., 5. 59. - Horn., H. xx. 3 i^^ws, p. 920 D.


ancient philosophic theories concerning it that we
are confronted with facts of singular importance for
the religious psychology of Greece. It is here that
the characteristically Hellenic fusion of art, religion,
and ethics is presented in its most striking light. It
is not merely that religion is found giving laws to
art and shaping its product — the survey of Christian
art shows a similar dictation — but, what is rarer in the
history of culture, w^e find that art itself was a con-
structive influence in the evolution of religion. This
phenomenon I have tried to expose and explain
elsewhere in an account of Apolline ritual.^ At
some early period, a certain severe style of music,
chiefly stringed, became a tradition of the cult of
Apollo, and helped to imprint upon the imagined
character of this deity certain ethical traits, so that
Apollo and Apolline music came to be associated
with the noble self-restraint of a law-abiding tem-
perament. The ethical poets and philosophers of
Greece were aware of this, and a passage in Pindar's
Pythians is typical : '* He gives to whomsoever he will
the music of the lyre and the spirit of song, bringing
into men's hearts the peaceful law-abiding temper."^

On the other hand, the Dionysiac worship being
essentially unconcerned with the civic virtues, but
satisfying the instinct for ecstasy and self-abandon-
ment, and stimulating an intenser vitality of indivi-
dual consciousness, was associated with a wilder and
more lawless music, chiefly of wind-instruments and
generally with the so-called Phrygian harmony.

1 CultSy vol. iv. pp. 243-252. 2 5, 37^


Hence arose a fundamental distinction between two
different types of music, suggested by and reacting
upon certain religious ideas, a distinction which in
the more complex art of modern Europe we mark
between the styles, for instance, of Bach and Wagner.
And hence we can understand the severe moral legis-
lation which Plato would impose on the musicians,
and his preference for the music of Apollo to the
music of INIarsyas, who stands for Dionysos/ Aris-
totle, while taking himself the same ethical view of
art, is broader-minded and justifies the orgiastic
music, as he might justify the Dionysiac opyua, as a
salutary outlet for pent-up emotion.

The music, then, that through the madness of its
ecstasy relieves the passions, and the music that
ennobles and tranquillises the mind, are regarded
equally as manifestations of divine power whereby
the godhead engenders certain ethical and psychical
moods in man.

This, then, is one of the salient features of Greek
religion, that more obviously than any other it
regarded art as a direct channel of spiritual or
psychical communication between the divinity and
mankind : the artist is the organ of God,^ and while
for us the personal Muses are a pedantic fiction, for
the Greek people they were full and vital realities ;
and such a religious phenomenon as these figures

1 Republ, 399.

2 Dio Chrysostom in his oration, De Dei Cognitiofie, regards such
art as that of Pheidias as one of the modes by which God is
manifested to men.


could only occur among a race who so deeply felt
the divine or demoniac power of music that they
could externalise it thus among the supernal agencies
of the unseen world.

No less interesting, both for the special and for the
comparative study of our subject, is the question of
the relation between Hellenic religion and Hellenic
science, for science and art make the double crown
of Hellenism. But the question, which really in-
volves nothing less than a detailed survey of the
various attitudes adopted by Hellenic philosophy
towards the popular beliefs, is far too extended for
this course, and I can only attempt to summarise a
few broad and essential facts.

One might dwell at length on certain negative
factors that determined the relations between the
Greek priest and the Greek man of science or philo-
sophy. In the first place, there was no centralised
or organised priesthood making dogmatic claims to
any superior knowledge concerning the cosmos ; the
omniscience claimed by Delphi for Apollo was mainly
practical, nor did the god pronounce on questions of
physics or metaphysics. Secondly, Greek religion
had no sacred books, and belongs to the class of
those that Mahomet specially condemns ; it had no
inspired scriptures of which the literal and dogmatic
interpretation could raise barriers against the progress
of secular science. To say that Homer's poems were
the Greek Bible is a popular saying, all the more
false and misleading because of a slight ingredient
of truth : for though Homer and Hesiod helped


much in the shaping of popular ideas about divinity,
a man could disbelieve any particular statement in
Homer or Hesiod without being thought immoral,
irreligious, or a bad citizen. Everyone was free
always to say with Euripides, " These are the unfor-
tunate stories of bards." There could, in short, be
no orthodoxy or heresy in old Hellas, because
neither priesthood nor sacred book made any dogmatic
demand. We recognise, indeed, that to proclaim
direct atheism — at Athens at least, and probably in
other Greek States — was as dangerous as it was to
introduce alien and unauthorised worships, and we
can understand that the civic rehgion would be pro-
tected by law against any deliberate and open attack.
But it had no reason to consider itself endangered
by free speculation concerning the physical causes of
things and the ultimate laws of the cosmos. The
isolated case of persecution of science in Greek history
is the expulsion of Anaxagoras from Athens, and of
that case we do not know the exact particulars. In
fact, the Athenians were the only Hellenic people
that might be charged with committing on more
than one occasion the sin of fanaticism.

Ordinarily the path of the thinker and scientific
student in Hellas from the sixth century onwards was
legally and practically safe, and to this we may partly
ascribe the strikingly swift and rich development in
so many fields of speculation, and also the tolerant and
sometimes sympathetic attitude that the philosophers
adopted towards the popular polytheism.

One other negative fact is important in this regard.


Those who wished to speculate and make discoveries
concerning the origin of man or the ultimate elements
of the cosmos need not fear to awaken the prejudices
of those who put faith in the early poets and mytho-
logies of Greece. For there was no accepted tradi-
tion concerning the birth of man or his origin, no
belief consecrated by immemorial story that either
man or the world was created by a personal god.
Zeus the creator scarcely figures at all in Greek
mythology and cult, which in this respect differs
momentously from the Hebraic and the Babylonian.
For Homer water or ocean was the origin of all
things, gods and men included ; for Hesiod chaos, a
vague, indeterminate cosmic substance : here were
certain ideas congenial to a free science which could
easily adapt them to some secular theory of evolu-
tion ; nor was the dictum of Herakleitos, " Neither
God nor man made the cosmos," ^ antagonistic to the

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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 8 of 11)