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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Online LibraryLewis Richard FarnellThe higher aspects of Greek religion. Lectures delivered at Oxford and in London in April and May 1911 → online text (page 9 of 11)
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average theology as we know it.

Looking, then, at these negative conditions of his
" milieu," we may say that the man of science found
in Hellas a better opportunity than any that was
open to him in Mesopotamia or Israel, under Islam
or until recently under Christianity.

But the further question must be considered whether
Greek religion gave any direct and positive encourage-
ment to science or philosophy. It is not, of course,
likely that the people, for whose average wants the
worship of the city was established, would feel so
strong an impulse towards these higher things as to

1 Clem. Alex., ASYrom., 5. 14, p. 711 (By water, Fr. xx.).


invoke their deities in their behalf by any cult-title or
prayer. None of the appellatives of divinity used in the
public liturgies could be given such an interpretation.
The personification of Aletheia or Truth, as a moral
and intellectual force, which we find occasionally in
the literature, had no Hfe or reality for the pubhc.

Yet the pubhc institutions of Hellas afford some
examples of the close association between the higher
intellectual culture and the popular religion. The
schools and "palaestrae" were consecrated in some
fashion to certain divinities— usually to Apollo, the
Muses, Hermes, or Herakles. And Apollo was
designated by one recorded appellative as the god of
the XeVxat, or the public colonnades, the usual
meeting-place at Athens for philosophic debates.'
Further, we have good reason to surmise that one
great branch of modern European culture, the study
and practice of medicine, is much indebted indirectly
and directly to the worship of Asclepios, which
developed at Epidauros and which from the fifth
century onwards expanded over the whole of the
Greek world, gaining a high pre-eminence and retain-
ing a strong vitality in the latter days of paganism
and famiharising men with the conception of the
divine Saviour. An interesting inscription of the
fourth century b.c. has been found at Epidauros,
containing a long list of cures and revealing, amidst
a prevailing atmosphere of dream-magic and miracle,
a glimmering of science nevertheless. And Hippo-
krates, the father of our medical science, was believed

1 Fide my Cults, vol. iv. p. 241, n.c.


to have derived his experience from the Asklepios-
shrine at Kos.^

But, generally, the presiding divinity of the intel-
lectual life of Greece was Apollo of Delphi ; for as
after the fifth century the oracle lost its political
power, it became rather the organ for the higher
pubhc opinion on moral and spiritual matters, and
this opinion was supposed to emanate from or to be
sanctioned by the god. For the priests were wise
enough to appropriate and enshrine in their temple
fragments of the best thought of the philosophers,
inscribing the walls, for instance, with maxims of the
higher ethic. The desire of the oracle to express
itself in the world of intellect is signalised by
the famous dehverance concerning the intellectual
supremacy of Socrates ; and again by its utterance
communicated to the philosopher Zeno, bidding him
" to hold intercourse with the dead," a phrase enjoin-
ing a life of contemplative study.^ Again, a late
writer speaks of the philosophic life as the life " which
Diogenes chose freely, the life which Apollo assigned
and Zeus commended."^

Hellenic religion, though deeply concerned with
morality and helping in many ways to establish a moral
order of society, was doubtless inferior as a moral force
to the Hebraic. But it may claim for itself the unique
achievement that it proclaimed the divine consecration
of the intellectual life ; and our modern civilisation
may have yet to gather some of the fruits of this idea.

1 Op. ciL, pp. i240-241. 2 Op. ciL, p. 242, n.c.

3 Max. Tyr., Dissert., 36. 5.



The subject which I have reserved for the close of
this course will be judged as of far the greatest
importance by those who are only familiar with the
phenomena of our modern religion and religious
experience. On the other hand, the student of the
old-world and pre-Christian systems of cult is apt
to be so impressed with their social and corporate
character that he is tempted to ignore the question
of their personal effect on the individual ; and indeed
the surviving records of some of them are wholly
public and political, and give us no glimpse of their
inner relations to the individual soul. But where the
records speak at all on this question, it must always
be one of high special as well as general interest ; for
it offers a test whereby the intelHgent modern can
determine the degree of affinity between any other
religion and his own ; also it makes its own contribu-
tion towards the classification of religions as lower
and higher ; since a religion that was wholly tribal
or corporate, that addressed itself exclusively to the
public or the group — whether nation, city, clan, or



family — having no relations or communication with
the individual, would be classed as one of an embry-
onic or lower type ; for any society must be regarded
as backward or prematurely stereotyped if its corpor-
ate consciousness is so all-pervading that the individual
soul cannot free itself and make its isolated appeal or
determine its private relation to the unseen world.
Certainly in these few thousand years we have
strangely shifted our point of view. But it is
doubtful if such a rigidly corporate religion as has
just been imagined ever existed on the earth ; at any
rate, the Hellenic was never such. At any period
of Hellenic religious history of which we dare speak,
the Hellenic individual was doubtless awake, and the
most severe corporate and socialistic discipline such
as the Lycurgean could not suppress his voice. And
the record of his voice is far from scanty ; in fact, so
ample and manifold that to expose it in full would
demand nothing less than the study of Homer, the
lyric poets, the dramatists, philosophers, and historians
of Greece. And all this is the theme of many
treatises by distinguished scholars. The utmost I
can now hope to effect is to indicate the main
questions that the inquiry involves, to present the
chief sources of evidence, and to determine what
general conclusions can be safely drawn.

The question concerning the personal religion of
any nation or any age may be investigated on the
following lines : we may look to the average mass of
the people and consider how far they are quickened
with a fervent religious zeal, also how far their


practice is guided and influenced by the accepted
religious ideals ; whether the private conscience
appears keenly susceptible to the sense of sin and the
idea of moral responsibility ; whether there is a grow-
ing or a prevalent desire for a closer personal com-
munion with the divinity than may be offered by the
established public worship. Or we may consider the
few choice spirits of each age, those who assume the
role of prophets and original thinkers on rehgious
matters, and we may collect their utterances as
materials for a history of higher religious thought :
we must then endeavour to determine whether they
have initiated or represented a movement that pene-
trated far into the masses' or whether they spoke for
themselves only without influence on their own or
later generations. In any case, they interest deeply
the student of this subject, for its history is chiefly
the record of such men, while it is often obliged to
be silent about the average man of the past for
want of material by which to judge him from this
point of view.

Perhaps no ancient religion has left so rich a store
of evidence as the Hellenic in both these directions.
And yet some of the questions posed above may
be found impossible to answer with precision : for
instance, how far in the various periods of Hellenic
history the individual was personally zealous con-
cerning this corporate religion of which I have been
trying to indicate the moral potentialities, also how far
it afforded an active stimulus to his will and conduct
to endeavour to realise its ideals. The last question


is almost hopeless ; for, as we are not near to possess-
ing sufficient moral statistics for judging our own
present, we are not likely to possess them in such
measure as to gauge accurately any period of the past.
Hence our judgments on such matters are apt to
be rhetorical and vague, and we contradict each other
irresponsibly in speaking of the moral decadence of
one age compared with another. It is easier to write
a history of Greek religion than a history of Greek
ethical practice. Furthermore, in forming our in-
ductions on this subject, we must beware of the
assumption, which experience shows to be fallacious,
that general immorality is a proof of general
scepticism or that intensity of religious feeling is an
indication of high morality ; the forces of the two
spheres are not so easily correlated and do not always
wax and wane together. Only sometimes, in fact,
and in particular cases where some salient evidence is
preserved, are we able to form a tolerably sure judg-
ment concerning the sympathy between the moral
practice and the religious conviction of the individual
in ancient Greece. I cannot now, of course, test this
statement in detail ; but will mention merely a few
outstanding examples where a careful study of the
facts reveals to us, we must believe, a glimpse into
the personal and individual mind of the average
Hellene. If he was fervent and zealous about any
part of his social creed, he was zealous about the
morality and religion associated with his family-
hearth and family-tomb ; the proof of this is writ
large over the monuments and literature of Hellenic


polytheism. Again, if his rehgious and ethical creed
were almost silent concerning the duty of ordinary
truthfulness — and the Hellene's reputation in this
respect was low — yet he was most sensitive in regard
to perjury, and his moral feeling concerning the
sanctity of the oath was vitalised by the forces of an
immemorial religion ; nor have we any reason to
suppose that the morality of an Athenian law-court
was in this matter inferior to that which prevails in
our own. Again, the horror of all civil bloodshed,
which grew ever stronger in the later period and
which, as we have seen, transcended the limitations
of the older clan-morality, was a phenomenon that
should figure prominently in the record of personal
morality in Greece ; and it was rooted deeply in
religious sentiment, being associated both with the
higher theistic thought and with the pervading awe
of the world of avenging ghosts.

A striking example is the record in Plutarch of
the horror which was excited in Athens by the news
of a fearful civic massacre in Argos : such tidings,
they felt, polluted their own air, and they ordered a
purification of their whole assembly.^

The immorality of certain Greek myths concerning
the deities has sometimes been a stumbling-block to
the belief that the religion was closely interwoven
with the higher personal morality of the people.
We may evade this difficulty by maintaining that
religion — that is to say, worship and serious thoughts
about the deity — is often independent of the popular
1 Plut., p. 814 B-C.


tales about the divine personages ; folk-stories are
irresponsible and rarely satisfy the higher religious
consciousness. Greek worship was generally pure
and solemn, expressed in forms that were usually
beautiful and often elevating, while the mythology
was sometimes frivolous and impure. Moreover, it
is always to be remembered that there were no sacred
books enshrining it, which it was an article of faith
to believe ; it was to this extent less powerful to
exercise a harmful moral influence. Nevertheless,
we have reason to suspect that there were certain
temperaments that could be evilly affected by this
element in the old legends ; the chief speaker in
Plato's Euthyphron justifies his unnatural severity
against his father by the example of Zeus,^ and we
have other instances in Greek literature of detrimental
morality based on mythic parallels. Therefore Plato
is seriously anxious to purify Greek mythology, and
many earnest passages in Attic tragedy and Pindar's
Odes show the same endeavour.- It is also fair to
bear in mind that there was much also in the divine
and heroic sagas which the higher literature was able
to use for moral and didactic effect ; this is specially
noticeable in Pindar, who actually preaches the doc-
trine of mercy and forgiveness to his royal patron
Arkesilas on the text of the legend that Zeus
pardoned and released the Titans.

1 p. 5 E-6 A.

2 Cf. Theognis, 1345; /Esch., Eum., 641; Aristoph., A"w6., 904.
1080 ; for other examples vide Leopold Schmidt, Ethic dcr Alien
Griechen, pp. J 36-1 37.


We cannot hope to estimate exactly what was the
moral influence of Greek mythology for good or for
evil. But comparative history teaches us that the
futilities and improprieties of religious folk-lore are
often powerless to choke the development of a high
ethical religion in the community and an ideal re-
ligious temperament in the individual. The Baby-
lonian literature affords us a striking example of
this. And Homer himself was aware of men of
devout temperaments, for whom religion was a real
power whatever idle stories might be told at banquets.
He has left us the portrait of the pious swineherd,
whose religious impulses are strikingly humanitarian
and seem to arise from the inner principle of con-
science ; and a poet who in defiance of omens and
superstition could utter the great phrase, " Best of
omens is it to fight for one's native land," was capable
of shaking off* the fetters of conventional tribal
thought and of penetrating to the heart of things
moral and religious.

The testimony of the Homeric poems may be
consulted also on another of the questions posed
above as relevant to the present subject — namely,
whether in the earlier or later period the Hellenic
conscience had developed a high degree of sensi-
tiveness to sin? Naturally it is only a question of
degree and comparative intensity; for the psychic
phenomenon, the consciousness of sin, is found in
races at nearly every stage of culture, wherever, in
fact, moraUty itself is found. Homer himself is
sufficiently alive to it, as many passages might be


adduced to prove, while that which has been quoted
already from the speech of Phoenix is evidence
enough: ''Men turn aside the wrath of the gods
with sacrifice and prayers . . . when a man has
committed trespass and sin," and the value of such
illustrations is not at all affected by the fact that
the poems make no mention of a peculiar form
of piacular sacrifice, the holocaust or sin - offering.
With these the later Greek ritual, both public and
private, was familiar, and they are part of ancient
Mediterranean tradition ; nor would it be difficult
to gather from the records of Greek worship examples
of gloomy and sorrowful liturgy and ceremony.

But we have no right to suppose that these were
usually accompanied by any clear conviction of sin,
either communal or private. And Robertson Smith's
dictum, that all religions of the antique tribal type
were normally cheerful and genial, as the bond
between the deity and the worshipper was one of
kinship and mutual kindhness, certainly applies in
the main to the Hellenic. A genial sense of " cama-
raderie " was inspired and maintained by sacred dance,
song, and simple prayer, and especially by the
sacrificial banquet at which the deity and his tribe
were imagined as feasting together. And whatever
ritual was in vogue for the purging of the people's
sins was external and mechanical merely, accom-
panied by no call to real repentance, no appeal to
the individual conscience. No prayer or formula has
been handed down from the pre-Christian religion
of Hellas that sounds the note of " Miserere


Domine." Nor is it heard anywhere in the higher
hterature ; the agony of remorse in an (Edipus or a
Herakles Mainomenos is not the agony of repentance
in the modern sense. Even the rehgious-minded
iEschylus, when he describes the natural ways
whereby the sinner might hope to avert or soften
the wrath of God,^ can only think of various forms
of sacrifices, blood-offerings, or oblations of fruits.
Tears, prostration, the body cleaving to the pave-
ment in abject ecstasy of repentance — these and
similar piacular methods were as familiar to the early
Babylonian as to the later Hebrew and Christian ;
they were wholly unfamiliar to the Hellene and alien
to the religious spirit of Hellenism, in which can
be found scarcely a touch of sentimentality, no
servility, and no extravagant proneness to ecstasy.
His religious enthusiasm tended to express itself in
measured movement, orderly music, and song. The
gulf between him and the divinity did not appear to
him so vast, the divine nature so ineffable, so far
above the standard of our moral life, as to crush him
with a sense of his own unworthiness. Such feeling
was natural to the Semite and other Orientals ; it
is prominent in Babylonian liturgies and hymns,
in which the worshipper abases himself utterly as a
slave before his deity. The phrase, SouXo? rov Oeov —
" the slave of God " — common in early Christian
inscriptions, came into the Greek Church from the
East, and would have seemed an unnatural and

i In the Niobe Frag., 136; cf. my article in Classical Review,
1897, pp. 296-297.


unworthy expression to the earher Hellene: signifi-
cant evidence is offered by a bihngual inscription
found in Malta containing a dedication by Phoenicians
and Greeks to the same divinity ; ' the formula? used
are mainly the same, except that the Phoenicians
style themselves " the slaves of God," and the Greeks
omit that conventional phrase of abasement.

Also it belongs to the present point of view to
observe that no Greek religious or philosophic
thinker ever came to formulate explicitly any
doctrine of original sin. The germ of such a theory
could be detected in the doctrine of the Orphic
sects, which, being founded on a religion in its origin
non- Hellenic, derived man's complex nature partly
from a primally good, partly from a primally evil,
source ; and Plato was somewhat indebted to. them
for his unfortunate theory of the body as the impure
prison-house of the soul, a theory destructive of the
race-instinct of Hellenism. Platonic and later Greek
thought contributed material indeed to the building
up of the dogma of original sin and the essential
evil of the sense-life; but it was not completed
within the Hellenic period proper, nor ever brought
home to the consciousness and faith of the average
pre-Christian Hellene. Sin in the abstract, sin as a
dark and all-pervading element of man's inner life,
was not reahsed by him ; he could only feel the sting
of particular sins, and for these only could he wish
to atone, of these to repent.

But we have evidence clear and trustworthy to

1 Corp. Inscr. Semit., i. No. 122.


show that his moral rehgious consciousness was
growing more and more sensitive from the eighth
century onwards in one direction — namely, in regard
to the sense of purity and impurity, a sense that
was often, but not always or necessarily, associated
with the world of ghosts and of ghostly influences.
At iirst the idea of purity was ritualistic merely, and
therefore non-moral — associated with washing of
hands, abstinence from certain food or from contact
with the dead ; but at least, by the fifth century
B.C., it had engendered the higher spiritual doctrine
of purity of heart and thought. In a former course
of lectures I have tried to sketch the points in this
progress.^ And the subject only concerns our
present inquiry because this craving for purity as a
psychic state is a phenomenon of individualistic
religion, for it appeals mainly to the inner religious
consciousness of the personal and private soul. If
all the community are sensitive to this emotion in
the same degree, it may have its social value ; for a
man may shrink from incurring stain, lest he spread
the miasma of impurity around his fellows. More-
over, certain communal effects of this cathartic
instinct have already been observed ; and if a whole
tribe or community comes to regard itself as specially
pure, its national consciousness may be quickened
thereby, but generally in antagonism to other
communities. More often we find that intense
punctiliousness in matters of purity makes for
egoism or sectarianism in religion. It is rarely a

^ Evolution of Religion, pp. 88-162.


bond of broad social union. So far as it brings
men together, it shuts them off into small groups,
private societies of the elite, who are not as other
men. The two most powerful examples of such
societies in the Greece of the sixth and the succeed-
ing centuries were the Orphic and Pythagorean
brotherhoods, whose rules of purity were severe and
fantastic. And such mystic brotherhoods, each
usually possessing special rites of purification, were
multiplying fast in the fourth and third centuries ;
and their general effect was against the communal
spirit of the older social religion. The Pythagoreans
demand to be buried in special consecrated ground,
fearing even after death the impure contact of the

In its relation to advanced religion, the value of
an elaborate purification-system is merely negative ; it
merely frees the body or the soul of the individual
from evil influences that render it unfit for com-
munion with the divinity. That has still to be
sought by positive methods.

One such method had been from time immemorial
the sacrifice. For in the earlier period at least, and
frequently also in the later, the offering of the animal
at the altar was felt to be something more than a
bribe to the deity. The holy spirit of the altar passed
into the animal that was consecrated and brought
into contact with it ; and those who afterwards
partook of it might be conscious of eating holy flesh
and thus enjoying temporary communion with the
spirit of the divinity. And in other details of the


Homeric sacrifice and in ritual records of the later
period we can, I think, discover clear traces of sacra-
mental communion.^

But, after all, such intercourse with the divinity
so gained belongs still to the communal and tribal
religion ; it did not oifer to the individual worshipper
the pecuHar privilege of a nearer and more private
intimacy with the godhead. Now, the average Greek
may have remained satisfied down to the sixth
century with this general clan-communion with the
clan-deity; and there is a curious fragment of a
Hesiodic poem extant in which the poet seems to
protest against the hope of familiar loving intercourse
between gods and men.^

But at some time, probably shortly after the period
of Hesiod, two phenomena begin to exercise an
influence that worked powerfully in favour of a more
personal and individualistic religion freed from the
fetters of clan and tribe ; these were the expansion of
the Eleusinian mysteries, and the establishment of
the Orphic brotherhoods. The first event must have
happened before the composition of the Homeric
hymn to Demeter — that is, not later than 600 B.C.—
for in that hymn the whole Hellenic world is en-
couraged to come to Eleusis to receive the blessings
of initiation into the mysteries of the Mother and the
Maid. There is no doubt that many alien Greeks

1 Fide my article, " Sacramental Communion in Greek Religion,"
Hihhert Journ., 1904.

2 Fragment of the Eoiai, 96 (Rzach, p. l63) : Zeus is said to have
brought on the Trojan war in order that the immortals, seeing the
sad fates of men, might no longer stoop to mortal lovers.


came to avail themselves of that invitation ; the alien
found himself there as one of a large group of cate-
chumens ; but these were bound by no gentile or
corporate bond, for each was there for the good of

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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 9 of 11)