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CHAPTER I GREEK RELIGIOUS CONCEPTS
The Jew is presented to the modern world in the double aspect of a race and a religion. In a measure this has always been the case, but we shall not in the least understand what the statement of the fact means without a very close analysis of the concepts of race and religion formed by both Greeks and Romans.

The word religion has a very definite meaning to us. It is the term applied to the body of beliefs that any group of men maintain about supernatural entities upon whom they consider themselves wholly dependent. The salient fact of modern religions is that for most men the group is very large indeed, that it vastly transcends all national limits. Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, all profess the purpose of gaining the entire human race for their adherents, and have actively attempted to do so. The fact that the religions with which we are most familiar are “world-religions,” and the abstract character of the predicates of the Deity in them, would seem to make religion as such practically free from local limitation. However, that is not completely true even for our time. In the first place, the bulk of Christians, as of Muslims and Buddhists, are in all three cases bearers of a common culture, and have long believed themselves of common descent. They occupy further a continuous, 22even if very large, area. Religious maps of the world would show solid blocks of color, not spots scattered everywhere. Secondly, even within the limits of the religion itself national boundaries are not wholly expunged. The common Christianity of Spain and England presents such obvious differences that insistence upon them is unnecessary; nor does the fact that Southern Germany, Belgium, and Ireland are all Roman Catholic imply that all these sections have the same religious attitude.

These are modern illustrations, and they represent survivals of a state of things which in the Greek world was fundamental. As it seems to us axiomatic that an abstractly conceived God cannot be the resident of a limited area on the surface of the earth, just so axiomatic it seemed, at one stage of Greek religious growth, that a god was locally limited, that his activities did not extend—or extended only in a weakened form—beyond a certain sharply circumscribed geographical area. That is probably the most fundamental and thoroughgoing of the differences between Greek religious feeling and that of our day. Opinions may differ widely about the degree of anthropomorphism present at the contrasted periods; and then, as now, the statements made about the nature and power of the Deity were contradictory, vague, and confusing. But one thing it is hard to question: the devoutly religious man of to-day feels himself everywhere, always, in the presence of his God. The Greek did not feel that his god was everywhere with him, certainly did not feel that he was everywhere approachable.[5]

23At another point too we are in great danger of importing modern notions into ancient conditions. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all book-religions. The final source of their doctrines is a revelation that has been written down, and is extant as an actual and easily accessible book. Moreover, it is the narrative portion of this book that is the best-known part of it, and that is generally associated in the popular mind with it. In the same way, we are prone to think of Greek religion as a series of extraordinarily beautiful myths or narratives of gods and heroes, which have likewise been written down, and are extant in the poems and dramas of which they are the subject. This view has been greatly strengthened by the unfortunate currency of the epigram that Homer was the Greek Bible. No one would be inclined to force, except as a paradox, the analogy upon which the statement rests; yet the phrase is so terse and simple, and the elements of the comparison are so generally familiar, that consciously and unconsciously current conceptions are moulded by it.

Now if the epigram quoted is essentially true, we have at once a measure of Greek religious feeling, since the Homeric poems are as accessible to us as to the Greeks themselves. We should be compelled to reckon with variety in the interpretation of the text, but in the literal signification there would always be a point of departure. And we should at once realize that for divine beings depicted as they are by Homer a devotion of a very different sort is demanded from that which 24modern faiths give their Deity. Nor does later literature represent the gods on a loftier moral plane. When we read Aristophanes,[6] it becomes still more difficult to understand how the gods could retain their divinity not only when deprived of their moral character, but even when stripped of their dignity. So far from raising the moral character of the divine beings who are the actors in these legends, the later versions of many quite unexceptionable myths deliberately debase them by subjecting most actions to a foully erotic interpretation.[7] The less offensive narrative, to be sure, survives as well, but it is to be noted that the divinity of the personages in question seems to be as unquestioned in the corrupt as in the purer form of the story.

How might an emotionally sensitive or mentally trained man pour forth supplication before a guzzling braggart like the Aristophanic Heracles or an effeminate voluptuary like the Apollo of Alexandrian poetry? It seems hard to discover any other defense than the one Charles Lamb offered for the dramatists of the Restoration—that the world the gods moved in was a wholly different one from the human world; a world in which moral categories had no existence, a Land of Cockayne without vices, because it was without the sanctions which vice disregards. No doubt some Greeks felt in this way toward the myths. But it was not a satisfactory theory. It introduced a dualism into standards of conduct that soon became intolerable, when men reflected seriously upon other sides of the divine nature, and drew inferences from it.

25As a matter of fact, the difficulty we find in addressing words of prayer and praise to such unworthy gods as sat upon the Homeric Olympus is modern, and was probably not felt at all by the vast majority of Greeks, either in Homer’s time or later. Not that the fraud, cruelty, faithlessness there exhibited seemed to the Greeks of any epoch commendable or imitable qualities. Even the Homeric Greek was far from being in a barbarous or semi-barbarous state. Civic virtues as between men were known and practised. But the personality of the individual gods in these stories could be disregarded in practice, because they were in no sense a part of the Greek religion. The chastest of men might with a clear conscience worship the lecherous Zeus, because worship did not at all concern itself with the catalogue of his amours. In Homer’s time and after, the Greek firmly believed that the Olympians were actually existing beings, but he scarcely stopped to ask himself whether it was literally true that Zeus had bidden Hera be silent under threats of personal violence. What did concern him in his relation with his gods was the disposition in which the god was likely to be toward him or his people. And his religious activity was directed to the end of making that disposition as good as possible.

The matter just set forth is far from being new doctrine; but for the general reader it must be constantly re-emphasized, because it is constantly forgotten. We continually find the Greek myths discussed in terms that would be true only of the Gospel narratives, and we see 26the Greek gods described as though they possessed the sharpness of personal outline which the Deity has in the minds of believing Christians. It is no doubt the extant literature—a florilegium at best—that is at fault in the matter. This literature, it must be remembered, was not preserved altogether by accident. To a large extent it represents a conscious selection, made for pedagogic purposes. The relative coherence which Greek myths have for us is due to the fact that the surviving poems and dramas which contain them were selected, partially at least, by Hellenistic and Byzantine schoolmasters in order to fit into a set cycle or scheme. Even in what we have there is abundant evidence that the myths about the gods could pretend to no sanctity for anybody, devout or scoffer, for the simple reason that they negated themselves, that widely differing and hopelessly contradictory stories were told of the same event or person.

In reality the Greek myths were not coherent. It is hard to discover in many of them a folkloristic kernel that had to be kept intact. Almost everywhere we are dealing with the free fantasies of highly imaginative poets. So fully was this understood that the stories most familiar to us are generally alluded to in serious Greek literature with an apologetic, ?? o? ποιητα? φασι, “as the poets say,” or some similar phrase. And as these stories were largely unrelated, so also were the gods of whom they were told, even though they bore the same name. If mythographers had taken the trouble to collect all the stories known of any one 27god—Hermes, for example—there would be nothing except the common name to indicate that they referred to the same chief actor, and much that, except for the common name, would be referred to different gods. Not even a single prominent trait, not a physical feature, would be found to run through all the myths so collected.

So far we have been dealing with extant literature. But if the more recondite notices of popular superstition are taken into account, as well as the archeological discoveries, we meet such figures as Demeter, Artemis, Apollo,[8] in various and curious forms and associations, so that one might be tempted to suppose that these highly individualized figures of poetry were, in the shrines in which they were worshiped, hardly more than divine appellatives of rather vague content. And on the islands of the Aegean, in Crete and Cyprus, where the continuity between Aegean, Mycenean, and Hellenic civilization[9] was perhaps less disturbed by convulsive upheavals, this seems especially to have been the case.

For cult purposes, then—the primary purpose of Greek religion—there was less difference between gods than we might suppose. Not even the strongly marked personages that poetry made of them were able to fix themselves in the popular mind. Sculptors had been busy in differentiating types, and yet even here the process was not completed. While in general we know of Poseidon-types, Zeus-types, etc., in art, the most thoroughly equipped critics find themselves embarrassed if 28they are required to name a statue that is wholly lacking in definite external symbols or attributes, such as the thunderbolt, trident, caduceus, and others.[10] Even the unrivaled artistic abilities of Greek sculptors found it impossible to create unmistakable types of the Greek gods, for the reason that the character of the god as portrayed in myth and fable was fluid, and not fixed.

As among most peoples of the time, the essential religious act was that which brought the god and his worshiper into contact—the sacrifice. What the real nature of sacrifice was need not concern us here. The undoubted fact is that sacrifice and prayer formed a single act;[11] that it was during the sacrifice that the worshiper ventured to address his prayer to the godhead he invoked. In doing so he must of necessity use the god’s name, and, as we have seen, the name was of more general and less specific connotation than is usually supposed. But the act of worship itself was specifically occasioned. Even the fixed and annually recurring festivals related to a specific, if recurring, occasion in the life of the people. This was eminently the case in the irregular acts of worship that arose out of some unforeseen contingency. Whatever the divine name was that was used, the specific occasion of its use made it necessary also to specify the function of the divinity of which the intervention was sought. That was regularly done by attaching to the name a qualifying epithet. When the rights of hospitality were threatened with invasion, it was Ζε?? Ξ?νιο?, Zeus the Protector of Strangers, that was addressed. In gratitude 29for a deliverance, Zeus or Apollo or Heracles or the Dioscuri or many another might be invoked as “the Savior.”[12] And it might well be argued that the Greek who did so had scarcely anything more definite in mind than a Roman who worshiped Salus, the abstract principle of safety. In very many cases the particular function was especially potent in certain areas, so that a local adjective applied as a divine epithet would sum up the power desired to be set in motion.

In the actual moment of prayer or propitiation, it was often a matter of courtesy to ignore the existence of other gods. This makes perhaps a sufficiently definite phenomenon to justify the application to it of the special name “henotheism” long ago devised by Max Müller;[13] and in henotheism we have very likely the germ of monotheism. But when not actually engaged in worship, the Greek was well aware that there were many gods, and that there were differences among them, and this quite apart from the myths, to which, as has been said, no very great importance can be attached in this connection. The differences in power and prominence of deities were perhaps not original, but they had arisen quickly and generally.

One difference particularly, that between gods and heroes, seems to have been real to the popular mind. A difference in the terminology that described the ritual act, and a difference in the act itself, point to a real distinction between the two divine conceptions.[14]

Who and what the heroes actually were is an extremely doubtful matter. That some of them were 30originally men is a proposition with which legend has made us familiar.[15] We shall recur later to the common heroization of the dead. That some of them were undoubted gods has been amply established.[16] It may well be that they were deities of a narrowly limited territory, knowledge of whom, for one reason or another, remained sharply circumscribed for a long time, so that when they came later within the range of myth-making they could not be readily fitted into any divine scheme. Often the name that appears in some legends as a hero appears in others as an epithet or cult-title of a better-known god. This fact may be variously interpreted. At least one interpretation derives this fusion of names from the fact that the worshipers of the later deity invaded the cult-home of the earlier, and ultimately degraded the latter to accessory rank. Or it may be taken as a compromise of existing claims. At any rate, in some of the heroes we seem to reach an element somewhat closer to the religious consciousness of the Greek masses. And if the gods, or most of them, are heroes who owe their promotion to a fortunate accident rather than to any inherent superiority, we may discover the fundamental divine conceptions of the Greeks in the traits that especially mark the heroes: sharp local limitation, absence of personal lineaments, adoration based upon power for evil as well as for good.[17]

It was because of this last fact that Greek poets could deal freely with gods and heroes in the narratives they created. The divine name possessed none of the ineffable sanctity it has for us by thousands of years of tradition. 31Except during the performance of the ritual act, the god’s presence and power were not vividly felt, and it would have been considered preposterous to suppose that he resented as compromising an idle tale from which he suffered no impairment of worship. That the gods really existed, and that honor was to be paid them after the ancestral manner, was more than the essence, it was the totality, of popular Greek theology. Speculation as to the real nature of gods and the world, the mass of citizens would have regarded as the most futile form of triviality.[18]

But there were some who thought otherwise. Many thoughtful men must have felt the absurdities and immoralities of the myths as keenly as we do. Xenophanes[19] protests, and no doubt not first of all men, against them. Further, with the earliest stirrings of cosmic speculation in Ionia, systems of theology are proposed that dispense with demiurges and administrators. Intellectually developed men cannot have been long in ridding themselves of popular conceptions that violated the most elementary reflection. To be sure, the philosopher did not always feel free to carry his conviction to the point of openly disregarding the established forms. To do so would bring him into conflict with other institutions that he valued, and with which religious forms had become inextricably bound up. But his own beliefs took broader and broader ground, and well before Alexander became monotheism, pantheism, or agnosticism.[20]

32All these standpoints must be kept in mind when we deal with the conflict between Greek and Jew: the popular one, no doubt rooted in a primitive animism, to which the gods were of indifferent and somewhat shifting personality, but to which the ritual act was vital; the attitude of poetry and folk-lore, in which divine persons appeared freely as actors, but in which each poem or legend was an end in itself unrelated to any other; and finally the philosophic analysis, which did not notably differ in result from similar processes of our own day.

We find the Hellenic world in possession of very many gods. Some of them are found practically wherever there were Greeks, although the degree of veneration they received in the different Greek communities varied greatly. However, such common gods did exist, and their existence involves the consideration of the spread of worships.

It is of course quite possible that the common gods grew out of the personification of natural phenomena, the solar-myth theory, on which nineteenth-century scholars sharpened their ingenuity.[21] It may be, too, that one or more of them are the national gods of the conquering Hellenes, whensoever and howsoever such a conquest may have taken place. Some may have been of relatively late importation. The Greeks lived in territory open to streams of influence from every point of the compass. Of one such importation we know some details—the worship of Dionysus.[22] Of others, such as Aphrodite, we suspect a Semitic origin by way of 33Cyprus.[23] It will be noticed that the names of most of the common gods are difficult to trace to Greek roots, a fact in itself of some significance.

We must remember that the wandering of the god is often merely the wandering of a name. That is especially true in those cases in which an old divine name becomes the epithet or cult-title of the intruding deity. Here obviously there was no change in the nature of the god worshiped and no interruption of his worship. It is very likely, too, that very few deities ever completely disappeared, even when there was a real migration of a god. The new god took his place by the side of the old one, and relations of many kinds, superior or inferior, were speedily devised. So at Athens, in the contest between Poseidon and Athena, permanently recorded on the west pediment of the Parthenon, the triumph of Athena merely gave her a privilege. The defeated Poseidon remained in uninterrupted possession of shrine and votaries.

How did the worship of certain gods spread? One answer is obvious: by the migration of their votaries. Locally limited as the operation of the divinity was, in normal circumstances there never was a doubt that it could transcend those limits when the circumstances ceased to be normal. And that certainly took place when the community of which the god was a member changed its residence. The methods of propitiation, as crystallized into the inherited ritual, and the divine name, in which, for the rank and file, the individuality of the god existed, would be continued, though 34they were subject to new influences, and not infrequently suffered a sea-change.

But migration of all or some of the worshipers of a given deity was not the only way by which the god himself moved from place to place. Exotic rituals, as soon as men became acquainted with them, had attractions of their own, especially if they contained features that made a direct sensational appeal. The medium of transference may have been the constantly increasing commerce, which brought strangers into every city at various times. In all Greek communities there was a large number of “disinherited”—metics, emancipated slaves, suffrageless plebs—to whom the established gods seemed cold and aloof, or who had only a limited share in the performance of the established ritual. These men perhaps were the first to welcome newer rituals, which it was safer to introduce when they were directed to newer gods.[24] They were assisted in doing this by the long-noted tolerance Greeks exhibited toward other religious observances, a tolerance which Christian Europe has taught us to consider strange and exceptional.

That tolerance was not altogether an inference from polytheism itself. Polytheism, to be sure, takes for granted the existence of other gods in other localities, but it does not follow that it permits the entrance of one god into the jurisdiction of another. And it was not universal. Among communities inhospitable in other respects it did not prevail. But it was the general rule, because the conception of ?σ?βεια, of “impiety,”[25] 35was largely the same everywhere. Impiety was such conduct as prevented or corrupted the established forms of divine communication. The introduction of new deities was an indictable offense at Athens only so far as it displaced the old ones. Where no such danger was apprehended, no charge would lie. The traditions that describe the bitter opposition which the introduction of Dionysus encountered in many places, are too uniform to be discredited.[26] But the opposition was directed to the grave social derangements that doubtless attended the adoption by many of an enthusiastic ritual. The opposition cannot have been general nor of long duration, since the worship of Dionysus spread with extraordinary rapidity, and covered the whole Greek world.

Religious movements curiously like the “revivals” of medieval and modern times visited Greece as they visit most organized communities. One of the most important of these, which gradually spread over Greece during the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E., must be reserved for later treatment. We may note here merely that there had been present from very early times the nuclei of a more intense religious life than any that could be experienced through the rather perfunctory solemnities of the state cults. These were the mysteries, of which the most famous were the Eleusinian in Attica. Some assign the latter to an Egyptian origin.[27] Wherever they came from, they had assumed a large place in the imagination of Greeks as early as the eighth century;[28] and they gained their adherents not so much by wrapping themselves in impenetrable secrecy as by 36promising their participants an otherwise unattainable degree of divine favor. Other mysteries existed elsewhere, possibly modeled upon the Eleusinian. All, however, made similar claims. It was in the form of mysteries that the emotional side of religion was deepened. Further, the organization of these mysteries exercised a profound influence upon all propagandizing movements, whether religious or not. It is not unlikely that the earliest organization of the Christian ecclesiae was, at least in part, influenced by the organization of the mysteries, whether of Eleusis or of some other sort.

It has been said that one commonly worshiped group of heroes were frankly and concededly dead men. It needs no demonstration to make clear that such worship of the dead must of necessity be very old; but at many places in the Greek world this ancient worship of the dead had become much weakened. The Homeric poems, for example, know it only in a very attenuated form.[29] At many other places, on the other hand, it flourished vigorously and continuously from the earliest times. The application of the word ?ρω?, “hero,” to the dead may have had very ancient sanction. In later times, the term appears very commonly,[30] and undoubtedly claims for the persons so qualified the essential characteristics of other heroes—i.e. immortality, the primary divine quality in Homer, and greatly increased power. It involved no difficulty to the Greek mind to make this claim, for it was a very common, perhaps universal, belief that gods and men were akin, that they were the same in nature. Perhaps the very oldest of 37transcendental beliefs is that the all-overwhelming phenomenon of death is not an annihilation, and that something survives, even if only as a shadow in the House of Hades. When men began to speculate actively upon the real results of bodily death, it must have occurred to many that the vaguely enlarged scope of such life as did survive was a return to a former and essential divinity.[31]

But from a hero, limited and obscure, to a god, seated in full effulgence at the table of Zeus, was a big step, and bigger yet was the deification of living men. It may even be that the latter conception was not Greek, but was borrowed from Egypt or Mesopotamia. There is no indication of its presence before Alexander. That a man in the flesh might be translated from mortality to immortality—entrückt—was a very ancient conviction. The son-in-law of Zeus, Menelaos, had been so privileged.[32] A poetic hyperbole claimed as much for the tyrannicide Harmodius.[33] There were others, of no special moment, who by popular legend had walked among men and were not found, as in later times happened to Arthur and Barbarossa. But they became as gods only by their translation. We do not meet in Greece for centuries men who ventured to claim for themselves in the visible body that measure of divinity. In Egypt, however, and Mesopotamia the conception was not new. Certainly Pharaoh did not wait to receive his divine character from the hand of the embalmer. He was at all times Very God. At both the Euphrates and the Nile, Alexander found ample precedent for the 38assumption of divine honors, to which he no doubt sincerely believed he had every claim. We know how he derived his descent, without contradiction from his mother Olympias. It was novel doctrine for Greeks, but the avidity with which it was accepted and imitated showed that it did not absolutely clash with Greek manner of thought.

After Alexander, every king or princelet who appeared with sufficient force to overawe a town could scarcely avoid the formal decree of divinity. The Ptolemies quietly stepped—though not at once—into the throne and prerogatives of Ra. Seleucus adopted Apollo as his ancestor, and his grandson took Θε??, “the God,” as his title. His line maintained a shadowy relation with Marduk and Nebo of Babylon. Demetrius the Besieger had only to show himself at Athens to be advanced into Olympus.

The religion briefly and imperfectly sketched in this chapter was not really a system at all. There is a deal of incoherency in it, of cross-purposes and contradiction. There was no priestly caste among the Greeks to gather into a system the confused threads of religious thinking. Its ethical bearings came largely through the idea of the state, in which religion was a highly important constituent. There was also a personal and emotional side to Greek religion, and in particular cases the adoration of the worshiper was doubtless the sacrifice of a broken and contrite heart, and not the blood of bullocks. But the crudities of animism cropped out in many places, 39and in the loftiest of Greek prayers there is no note like “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and all thy soul, and all thy might.” In its most developed form a Greek’s dependence on his god was resignation, not self-immolation.


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