Ancient History & Civilisation


The Gods of Greece


WHEN we look for unifying elements in the civilization of these scattered cities we find essentially five: a common language, with local dialects; a common intellectual life, in which only major figures in literature, philosophy, and science are known far beyond their political frontiers; a common passion for athletics, finding outlet in municipal and interstate games; a love of beauty locally expressed in forms of art common to all the Greek communities; and a partly common religious ritual and belief.

Religion divided the cities as much as it united them. Under the polite and general worship of the remote Olympians lay the intenser cults of local deities and powers who served no vassalage to Zeus. Tribal and political separatism nourished polytheism, and made monotheism impossible. In the early days every family had its own god; to him the divine fire burned unextinguished at the hearth, and to him offerings of food and wine were made before every meal. This holy communion, or sharing of food with the god, was the basic and primary act of religion in the home. Birth, marriage, and death were sanctified into sacraments by ancient ritual before the sacred fire; and in this way religion suffused a mystic poetry and a stabilizing solemnity over the elemental events of human life. In like manner the gene, the phratry, the tribe, and the city had each its special god. Athens worshiped Athena, Eleusis Demeter, Samos Hera, Ephesus Artemis, Poseidonia Poseidon. The center and summit of the city was the shrine of the city god; participation in the worship of the god was the sign, the privilege, and the requisite of citizenship. When the city marched out to war it carried the form and emblem of its god in the forefront of the troops, and no important step was taken without consulting him through divination. In return he fought for the city, and sometimes seemed to appear at the head or above the spears of the soldiers; victory was the conquest not only of a city by a city but of a god by a god. The city, like the family or the tribe, kept always burning, at a public altar in the prytaneum or town hall, a sacred fire symbolizing the mystically potent and persistent life of the city’s founders and heroes; and periodically the citizens partook of a common meal before this fire. Just as in the family the father was also the priest, so in the Greek city the chief magistrate or archon was the high priest of the state religion, and all his powers and actions were sanctified by the god. By this conscription of the supernatural, man was tamed from a hunter into a citizen.

Liberated by local independence, the religious imagination of Greece produced a luxuriant mythology and a populous pantheon. Every object or force of earth or sky, every blessing and every terror, every qualityeven the vices—of mankind was personified as a deity, usually in human form; no other religion has ever been so anthropomorphic as the Greek. Every craft, profession, and art had its divinity, or, as we should say, its patron saint; and in addition there were demons, harpies, furies, fairies, gorgons, sirens, nymphs, almost as numerous as the mortals of the earth. The old question—is religion created by priests?—is here settled; it is incredible that any conspiracy of primitive theologians should have begotten such a plethora of gods. It must have been a boon to have so many deities, so many fascinating legends, sacred shrines, and solemn or joyous festivals. Polytheism is as natural as polygamy, and survives as long, suiting well all the contradictory currents of the world. Even today, in Mediterranean Christianity, it is not God who is worshiped, so much as the saints; it is polytheism that sheds over the simple life the inspiring poetry of consolatory myth, and gives to the humble soul the aid and comfort that it would not venture to expect from a Supreme Being unapproachably awful and remote.

Each of the gods had a mythos, or story, attached to him, which accounted for his place in the city’s life, or for the ritual that honored him. These myths, rising spontaneously out of the lore of the place and the people, or out of the inventions and embellishments of rhapsodists, became at once the faith and the philosophy, the literature and the history of the early Greek; from them came the subjects that adorned Greek vases, and suggested to artists countless paintings, statues, and reliefs. Despite the achievements of philosophy and the attempts of a few to preach a monotheistic creed, the people continued to the end of Hellenic civilization to create myths, and even gods. Men like Heracleitus might allegorize the myths, or like Plato adapt them, or like Xenophanes denounce them; but when Pausanias toured Greece five centuries after Plato he found still alive among the people the legends that had warmed the heart of the Homeric age. The mythopoetic, theopoetic process is natural, and goes on today as always; there is a birth rate as well as a death rate of the gods; deity is like energy, and its quantity remains, through all vicissitudes of form, approximately unchanged from generation to generation.

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