Ancient History & Civilisation


1. The Lesser Deities

We shall force some order and clarity upon this swarm of gods if we artificially divide them into seven groups: sky-gods, earth-gods, fertility-gods, animal gods, subterranean gods, ancestor or hero gods, and Olympians. “The names of all of them,” as Hesiod said, “it were troublesome for a mortal man to tell.”1

(1) Originally, so far as we can make out, the great god of the invading Greeks, as of the Vedic Hindus, was the noble and various sky itself; it was probably this sky-god who with progressing anthropomorphism became Uranus, or Heaven, and then the “cloud-compelling,” rain-making, thunder-herding Zeus.2 In a land surfeited with sunshine and hungry for rain, the sun, Helios, was only a minor deity. Agamemnon prayed to him,3 and the Spartans sacrified horses to him to draw his flaming chariot through the skies;*the Rhodians, in Hellenistic days, honored Helios as their chief divinity, flung annually into the sea four horses and a chariot for his use, and dedicated to him the famous Colossus;4 and Anaxagoras almost lost his life, even in Periclean Athens, for saying that the sun was not a god, but only a ball of fire. Generally, however, there was little worship of the sun in classic Greece; still less of the moon (Selene); least of all, of the planets or the stars.

(2) The earth, not the heavens, was the home of most Greek gods. And first the earth itself was the goddess Ge or Gaea, patient and bountiful mother, pregnant through the embrace of raining Uranus, the sky. A thousand lesser deities dwelt on the earth, in its waters, or in its surrounding air: spirits of sacred trees, especially the oak; Nereids, Naiads, Oceanids, in rivers, lakes, or the sea; gods gushing forth as wells or springs, or flowing as stately streams like the Maeander or the Spercheus; gods of the wind, like Boreas, Zephyr, Notus, and Eurus, with their master Aeolus; or the great god Pan, the horned, cloven-footed, sensual, smiling Nourisher, god of shepherds and flocks, of woods and the wild life lurking in them, he whose magic flute could be heard in every brook and dell, whose startling cry brought panic to any careless herd, and whose attendants weremerry fauns and satyrs, and those old satyrs called sileni, half goat and half Socrates. Everywhere in nature there were gods; the air was so crowded with spirits of good or evil that, said an unknown poet, “There is not one empty chink into which you could push the spike of a blade of corn.”5

(3) The most mysterious and potent force in nature being reproduction, it was natural that the Greeks, like other ancient peoples, should worship the principle and emblems of fertility in man and woman along with their worship of fertility in the soil. The phallus, as symbol of reproduction, appears in the rites of Demeter, Dionysus, Hermes, even of the chaste Artemis.6 In classical sculpture and painting this emblem recurs with scandalous frequency. Even the Great Dionysia, the religious festival at which the Greek drama was played, was introduced by phallic processions, to which Athenian colonies piously sent phalli.7 Doubtless such festivals lent themselves to much lusty humor, as one may judge from Aristophanes; but all in all the humor was healthy, and perhaps served the purpose of stimulating Eros and promoting the birth rate.8

The more vulgar side of this fertility cult was expressed in the Hellenistic and Roman periods by the worship of Priapus, born of an amour between Dionysus and Aphrodite, and popular with vase painters and the mural artists of Pompeii. A lovelier variation of the reproductive theme was the veneration of goddesses representing motherhood. Arcadia, Argos, Eleusis, Athens, Ephesus, and other localities gave their greatest devotion to feminine deities, often husbandless; such goddesses presumably reflect a primitive matrilinear age before the coming of marriage;9 the enthronement of Zeus as Father God over all gods represents the victory of the patriarchal principle.* The probable priority of women in agriculture may have helped to give form to the greatest of these mother deities, Demeter, goddess of the corn or the tilled earth. One of the most beautiful of Greek myths, skillfully narrated in the Hymn to Demeter once attributed to Homer, tells how Demeter’s daughter Persephone, while gathering flowers, was kidnaped by Pluto, god of the underworld, and snatched down to Hades. The sorrowing mother searched for her everywhere, found her, and persuaded Pluto to let Persephone live on the earth nine months in every year—a pretty symbol for the annual death and rebirth of the soil. Because the people of Eleusis befriended the disguised Demeter as she “sat by the way, grieved in her inmost heart,” she taught them and Attica the secret of agriculture, and sent Triptolemus, son of Eleusis’ king, to spread the art among mankind. Essentially it was the same myth as that of Isis and Osiris in Egypt, Tammuz and Ishtar in Babylonia, Astarte and Adonis in Syria, Cybele and Attis in Phrygia. The cult of motherhood survived through classical times to take new life in the worship of Mary the Mother of God.

(4) Certain animals, in early Greece, were honored as semideities. Greek religion was too anthropomorphic, in its sculptural age, to admit the divine menageries that we find in Egypt and India; but a vestige of a less classical past appears in the frequent association of an animal with a god. The bull was sacred because of its strength and potency; it was often an associate, disguise, or symbol of Zeus and Dionysus, and perhaps preceded them as a god.10 In like manner the “cow-eyed Hera” may once have been a sacred cow.11 The pig too was holy because of its fertility; it was associated with the gentle Demeter; at one of her festivals, the Thesmophoria, the sacrifice was ostensibly of a pig, possibly to it.12 At the feast of the Diasia the sacrifice was nominally to Zeus, really to a subterranean snake that was now dignified with his name.13 Whether the snake was holy as supposedly deathless, or as a symbol of reproductive power, we find it passing down as a deity from the snake-goddess of Crete into fifth-century Athens; in the temple of Athena, on the Acropolis, a sacred serpent dwelt to whom, each month, a honey cake was offered in appeasing sacrifice. In Greek art a snake is often seen about the figures of Hermes, Apollo, and Asclepius;15 under the shield of Pheidias’ Athene Parthenos was wreathed a mighty serpent; the Farnese Athena is half covered with snakes.16 The snake was often used as a symbol or form of the guardian deity of temple or home;17 perhaps because it prowled about tombs it was believed to be the soul of the dead.18 The Pythian games are thought to have been celebrated, at first, in honor of the dead python of Delphi.

(5) The most terrible of the gods were under the earth. In caves and clefts and like nether chambers dwelt those chthonian or earthly deities whom the Greeks worshiped not by day with loving adoration, but at night with apotropaic rites of riddance and fear. These vague nonhuman powers were the real autochthonoi of Greece, older than the Hellenes, older perhaps than the Mycenaeans, who probably transmitted them to Greece; if we could trace them to their origin we might find that they were the vengeful spirits of the animals that had been driven into the forests or under the soil by the advance and multiplication of men. The greatest of these subterranean deities was called Zeus Chthonios; but Zeus here meant merely god19 Or he was called Zeus Meilichios, the Benevolent God; but here again the words were deceptive and propitiatory, for this god was a fearful snake.—Brother to Zeus was Hades, lord of the underworld that took his name. To placate him the Greeks called him Pluto, the giver of abundance, for he had it in his power to bless or blight the roots of all things that grew in the soil.* Still more ghostly and terrible was Hecate, an evil spirit that came up from the lower world and brought misfortune, through her evil eye, to all whom she visited. The less learned Greeks sacrificed puppies to keep her away.21

(6) Before the classical age the dead were regarded as spirits capable of good and evil to men, and were appeased with offerings and prayer. They were not quite gods, but the primitive Greek family, like the Chinese, honored its dead beyond any deity.22 In classical Greece these vague ghosts were more dreaded than loved, and were propitiated with aversion rituals, as in the festival of Anthesteria. The worship of heroes was an extension of the cult of the dead. Great, noble, or beautiful men or women could be raised by the gods to immortal life and become minor deities. So the people of Olympia offered annual sacrifice to Hippodameia; Cassandra was worshiped at Laconian Leuctra, Helen at Sparta, Oedipus at Colonus. Or a god might descend into the body of a mortal, and transform him with divinity; or the god might cohabit with a mortal and beget a hero-god, as Zeus with Alcmena begot Heracles. Many cities, groups, even professions, traced their origin to some god-born hero; so the physicians of Greece looked back to Asclepius. The god was once a dead man, ancestor, or hero; the temple was originally a tomb; the church is still in most lands a shelter for relics of the sacred dead. In general the Greeks made less distinction between men and gods than we do; many of their gods were as human, except in birth, as our saints, and as close to their worshipers; and though they were called Immortals, some of them, like Dionysus, could die.

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