1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Greek Religion

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20086951911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 12 — Greek Religion

GREEK RELIGION. The recent development of anthropological science and of the comparative study of religions has enabled us at last to assign to ancient Greek religion its proper place in the classification of creeds and to appreciate its importance for the history of civilization. In spite of all the diversities of local cults we may find a general definition of the theological system of the Hellenic communities, and with sufficient accuracy may describe it as an anthropomorphic polytheism, preserving many traces of a pre-anthropomorphic period, unchecked by any exacting dogma or tradition of revelation, and therefore pliantly adapting itself to all the changing circumstance of the social and political history of the race, and easily able to assimilate alien ideas and forms. Such a religion, continuing in whole or in part throughout a period of at least 2000 years, was more capable of progress than others, possibly higher, that have crystallized at an early period into a fixed dogmatic type; and as, owing to its essential character, it could not be convulsed by any inner revolution that might obliterate the deposits of its earlier life, it was likely to preserve the imprints of the successive ages of culture, and to reveal more clearly than any other testimony the evolution of the race from savagery to civilization. Hence it is that Greek religion appears to teem with incongruities, the highest forms of religious life being often confronted with the most primitive. And for this reason the student of savage anthropology and the student of the higher religions of the world are equally rewarded by its study.

Modern ethnology has arrived at the conviction that the Hellenic nation, like others that have played great parts in history, was the product of a blend of populations, the conquering tribes of Aryan descent coming from the north and settling among and upon certain pre-Hellenic Mediterranean stocks. The conclusion that is naturally drawn from this is that Hellenic religion is also the product of a blend of early Aryan or Indo-Germanic beliefs with the cult-ideas and practices of the Mediterranean area that were from of old indigenous in the lands which the later invaders conquered. But to disentangle these two component parts of the whole, which might seem to be the first problem for the history of the development of this religion, is by no means an easy task; we may advance further towards its solution, when the mysterious pre-Hellenic Mediterranean language or group of languages, of which traces remain in Hellenic place-names, and which may be lying uninterpreted on the brick-tablets of the palace of Cnossus, has found its interpreter. For the first question is naturally one of language. But the comparative study of the Indo-European speech-group, great as its philological triumphs have been, has been meagre in its contributions to our positive knowledge of the original belief of the primitive stock. It is not possible to reconstruct a common Indo-European religion. The greater part of the separate Aryan cult-systems may have developed after the diffusion and may have been the result of contact in prehistoric days with non-Aryan peoples. And many old religious etymological equations, such as Οὐρανός = Sanskrit Varuna, Ἑρμῆς = Sarameyās, Athena = Ahana, were uncritically made and have been abandoned. The chief fact that philology has revealed concerning the religious vocabulary of the Aryan peoples is that many of them are found to have designated a high god by a word derived from a root meaning “bright,” and which appears in Zeus, Jupiter, Sanskrit Dyaus. This is important enough, but we should not exaggerate its importance, nor draw the unwarranted inference that therefore the primitive Indo-Europeans worshipped one supreme God, the Sky-Father. Besides the word “Zeus,” the only other names of the Hellenic pantheon that can be explained wholly or partly as words of Aryan formation are Poseidon, Demeter, Hestia, Dionysus (whose name and cult were derived from the Aryan stock of the Thraco-Phrygians) and probably Pan. But other names, such as Athena, Ares, Apollo, Artemis, Hera, Hermes, have no discovered affinities with other Aryan speech-groups; and yet there is nothing suspiciously non-Aryan in the formation of these words, and they may all have belonged to the earliest Hellenic-Aryan vocabulary. In regard to others, such as Rhea, Hephaestus and Aphrodite, it is somewhat more probable that they belonged to an older pre-Hellenic stock that survived in Crete and other islands, and here and there on the mainland; while we know that Zeus derived certain unintelligible titles in Cretan cult from the indigenous Eteo-cretan speech.

A minute consideration of a large mass of evidence justifies the conclusion that the main tribes of the Aryan Hellenes, pushing down from the north, already possessed certain deities in common such as Zeus, Poseidon and Apollo with whom they associated certain goddesses, and that they maintained the cult of Hestia or “Holy Hearth.” Further, a comparison of the developed religions of the respective Aryan peoples suggests that they tended to give predominance to the male divinity, although we have equally good reason to assert that the cult of goddesses, and especially of the earth-goddess, is a genuinely “Aryan” product. But when the tribes of this family poured into the Greek peninsula, it is probable that they would find in certain centres of a very ancient civilization, such as Argolis and Crete, the dominant cult of a female divinity.[1] The recent excavations on the site of the Hera temple at Argos prove that a powerful goddess was worshipped here many centuries before it is probable that the Hellenic invader appeared. He may have even found the name Hera there, or may have brought it with him and applied it to the indigenous divinity. Again, we are certain that the great mother-goddess of Crete, discovered by Dr Arthur Evans, is the ancestress of Rhea and of the Greek “Mother of the gods”: and it is a reasonable conjecture that she accounts for many of the forms of Artemis and perhaps for Athena. But the evidence by no means warrants us in assuming as an axiom that wherever we find a dominant goddess-cult, as that of Demeter at Eleusis, we are confronted with a non-Hellenic religious phenomenon. The very name “Demeter” and the study of other Aryan religions prove the prominence of the worship of the earth-goddess in our own family of the nations. Finally, we must reckon with the possibility that the other great nations which fringed the Mediterranean, Hittite, Semitic and Egyptian peoples, left their impress on early Greek religion, although former scholars may have made rash use of this hypothesis.[2]

Recognizing then the great perplexity of these problems concerning the ethnic origins of Hellenic religion, we may at least reduce the tangle of facts to some order by distinguishing its lower from its higher forms, and thus provide the material for some theory of evolution. We Animism. may collect and sift the phenomena that remain over from a pre-anthropomorphic period, the imprints of a savage past, the beliefs and practices that belong to the animistic or even the pre-animistic period, fetishism, the worship of animals, human sacrifice. We shall at once be struck with the contrast between such civilized cults as those of Zeus, Athena, Apollo, high personal divinities to whom the attributes of a progressive morality could be attached, and practices that long survived in backward communities, such as the Arcadian worship of the thunder and the winds, the cult of Zeus Κεραυνός “the thunder” at Mantinea and Zeus Καππώτας in Laconia, who is none other than the mysterious meteoric stone that falls from heaven. These are examples of a religious view in which certain natural phenomena or objects are regarded as mysteriously divine or sacred in their own right and a personal divinity has not yet emerged or been separated from them. A noteworthy product of primitive animistic feeling is the universally prevalent cult of Hestia, who is originally “Holy Hearth” pure and simple, and who even under the developed polytheism, in which she played no small part, was never established as a separate anthropomorphic personage.

The animistic belief that certain material objects can be charged with a divine potency or spirit gives rise to fetishism, a term which properly denotes the worshipful or superstitious use of objects made by art and invested with mysterious power, so as to be used like amulets for Fetishism. the purposes of protective magic or for higher purposes of communion with the divinity. From the earliest discoverable period down to the present day fetishism has been a powerful factor in the religion of the Graeco-Roman world. The importance of the sacred stone and pillar in the “Mycenaean” or “Minoan” period which preceded Homer has been impressively shown by Dr Arthur Evans, and the same fetishistic worship continued throughout the historic ages of classic paganism, the rude aniconic emblem of pillar or tree-trunk surviving often by the side of the iconic masterpiece. It is a reasonable conjecture that the earliest anthropomorphic images of divinities, which were beginning to make their appearance by the time of Homer, were themselves evolved by slow transformation from the upright sacred column. And the altar itself may have arisen as another form of this; the simple heap of stones, such as those erected to Hermes by the way-side and called Ἑρμαῖοι λόφοι, may have served both as a place of worship and as an agalma that could attract and absorb a divine potency into itself. Hence the fetishistic power of the altar was fully recognized in Greek ritual, and hence also in the cult of Apollo Agyieus the god and the altar are called by the same name.

It has been supposed that the ancestors of the historic Greeks, before they were habituated to conceive of their divinities as in human form, may have been accustomed to invest them with animal attributes and traits. We must not indeed suppose it to be a general law of religious evolution that “theriomorphism” must always precede anthropomorphism and that the latter transcends and obliterates the former. The two systems can exist side by side, and savages of low religious development can conceive of their deities as assuming at one time human, at another bestial, shape. Now the developed Greek religion was devotedly anthropomorphic, and herein lay its strength and its weakness; nevertheless, the advanced Hellene could imagine his Dionysus entering temporarily into the body of the sacrificial bull or goat, and the men of Phigalia in Arcadia were attached to their horse-headed Demeter, and the primitive Laconians possibly to a ram-headed Apollo. Theriolatry in itself, i.e. the worship of certain animals as of divine power in their own right, apart from any association with higher divinities, can scarcely be traced among the Greek communities at any period. They are not found to have paid reverence to any species, though individual animals could acquire temporarily a divine character through communion with the altar or with the god. The wolf might at one time have been regarded as the incarnation of Apollo, the wolf-god, and here and there we find faint traces of a wolf-sacrifice and of offerings laid out for wolves. But the occasional propitiation of wild beasts may fall short of actual worship. The Athenian who slew a wolf might give it a sumptuous funeral, probably to avoid a blood-feud with the wolf’s relatives, yet the Athenian state offered rewards for a wolf’s head. Nor did any Greek individual or state worship flies as a class, although a small oblation might be thrown to the flies before the great sacrifice to Apollo on the Leucadian rock, to please them and to persuade them not to worry the worshippers at the great solemnity, where the reek of roast flesh would be likely to attract them.

Theriolatry suggests totemism; and though we now know that the former can arise and exist quite independently of the latter, recent anthropologists have interpreted the apparent sanctity or prestige of certain animals in parts of Greek mythology and religion as the deposit Totemism. of an earlier totemistic system. But this interpretation, originated and maintained with great acumen by Andrew Lang and W. Robertson Smith, appears now somewhat hazardous; and as a scientific hypothesis there are many flaws in it. The more observant study of existing totem-tribes has weakened our impression of the importance of totemism as a primitive religious phenomenon. It is in reality more important as a social than as a religious factor. If indeed we choose to regard totemism as a mere system of nomenclature, by which a tribe names itself after some animal or plant, then we might quote a few examples of Hellenic tribes totemistic in this sense. But totemism is a fact of importance only when it affects the tribal marriage laws or the tribal religion. And the tribal marriage laws of ancient Greece, so far as they are known, betray no clear mark of totemistic arrangements; nor does the totemism of contemporary savages appear to affect their religion in any such way as to suggest a natural explanation for any of the peculiar phenomena of early Hellenic polytheism. Here and there we have traces of a snake-tribe in Greece, the Ὀφιεῖς in Aetolia, the Ὀφιογενεῖς in Cyprus and Parium, but we are not told that these worshipped the snake, though the latter clan were on terms of intimacy with it. Where the snake was actually worshipped in Hellenic cult—the cases are few and doubtful—it may have been regarded as the incarnation of the ancestor or as the avatar of the under-world divinity.

Finally, among the primitive or savage phenomena the practice of human sacrifice looms large. Encouraged at one time by the Delphic oracle, it was becoming rare and repellent to the conscience by the 6th century B.C.; but it was not wholly extinct in the Greek world even Human sacrifice. by the time of Porphyry. The facts are very complex and need critical handling, and a satisfying scientific explanation of them all is still to be sought.

We can now observe the higher aspects of the advanced polytheism. And at the outset we must distinguish between mythology and religion strictly understood, between the stories about the divinities and the private or public religious service. No doubt the former are often a reflection of the latter, in many cases being suggested by the ritual which they may have been invented to interpret, and often envisaging important cult-ideas. Such for example are the myths about the purification and trial of Orestes, Theseus, Ixion, the story of Demeter’s sorrow, of the sufferings and triumph of Dionysus, and those about the abolition of human sacrifice. Yet Greek mythology as a whole was irresponsible, without reserve, and unchecked by dogma or sacerdotal prohibition; and frequently it sank below the level of the current religion, which was almost free from the impurities which shock the modern reader of Hellenic myths. Nor again did any one feel himself called upon to believe any particular myth; in fact, faith, understood in the sense in which the term is used in Christian theology, as the will to believe certain dogmatic statements about the nature and action of divinity, is a concept which was neither named nor recognized in Hellenic ethics or religious doctrine; only, if a man proclaimed his disbelief in the existence of the gods and refused to join in the ritual of the community, he would become “suspect,” and might at times be persecuted by his fellows. Greek religion was not so much an affair of doctrine as of ritual, religious formulae of which the cult-titles of the divinities were an important component, and prayer; and the most illuminative sources of our knowledge of it are the ritual-inscriptions and other state-documents, the private dedications, the monuments of religious art and certain passages in the literature, philology and archaeology being equally necessary to the equipment of the student.

We are tempted to turn to Homer as the earliest authority. And though Homer is not primitive and does not present even an approximately complete account of Greek religion, we can gather from his poems a picture of an advanced polytheism which in form and structure at least is Religion in Homer. that which was presented to the world of Aeschylus. We discern a pantheon already to some extent systematized, a certain hierarchy and family of divinities in which the supremacy of Zeus is established as incontestable. And the anthropomorphic impulse, the strongest trend in the Greek religious imagination, which filled the later world with fictitious personages, generating transparent shams such as an Ampidromus for the ritual of the Ampidromia, Amphiction for the Amphictiones, a hero Κέραμος for the gild of potters, is already at its height in the Homeric poems. The deities are already clear-cut, individual personalities of distinct ethos, plastically shaped figures such as the later sculpture and painting could work upon, not vaguely conceived numina like the forms of the old Roman religion. Nor can we call them for the most part nature-deities like the personages of the Vedic system, thinly disguised “personifications” of natural phenomena. Athena is not the blue sky nor Apollo the sun; they are simply Athena and Apollo, divine personages with certain powers and character, as real for their people as Christ and the Virgin for Christendom. By the side of these, though generally in a subordinate position, we find that Homer recognized certain divinities that we may properly call nature-powers, such as Helios, Gaia and the river-deities, forms descending probably from a remote animistic period, but maintaining themselves within the popular religion till the end of Paganism. Again, though Homer may talk and think at times with levity and banalité about his deities, his deeper utterances impute an advanced morality to the supreme God. His Zeus is on the whole a power of righteousness, dealing with men by a righteous law of nemesis, never being himself the author of evil—an idea revealed in the opening passage of the Odyssey—but protecting the good and punishing the wicked. Vengeance, indeed, was one of the attributes of divinity both for Homer and the average Greek of the later period, as it is in Judaic and Christian theology, though Plato and Euripides protested strongly against such a view. But the Homeric Zeus is equally a god of pity and mercy, and the man who neglects the prayers of the sorrowful and afflicted, who violates the sanctity of the suppliant and guest, or oppresses the poor or the wanderer, may look for divine punishment. Though not regarded as the physical author of the universe or the Creator, he is in a moral sense the father of gods and men. And though the sense of sin and the need of piacular sacrifice are expressed in the Homeric poems, the relations between gods and men that they reveal are on the whole genial and social; the deity sits unseen at the good man’s festal sacrifice, and there is a simple apprehension of the idea of divine communion. There is also indeed a glimmering of the dark background of the nether world, and the chthonian powers that might send up the Erinys to fulfil the curse of the wronged. Yet on the whole the religious atmosphere is generally cheerful and bright; freer than that of the later ages from the taint of magic and superstition; nor is Homer troubled much about the life after death; he scarcely recognizes the cult of the dead,[3] and is not oppressed by fear of the ghost-world.

If we look now broadly over the salient facts of the Greek public and private worship of the historic period we find much in it that agrees with Homeric theology. His “Olympian” system retains a certain life almost to the end of Paganism, and it is a serious mistake to The post-Homeric period. suppose that it had lost its hold upon the people of the 5th and 4th century B.C. We find it, indeed, enriched in the post-Homeric period with new figures of prestige and power; Dionysus, of whom Homer had only faintly heard, becomes a high god with a worship full of promise for the future. Demeter and Kore, the mother and the girl, whom Homer knew well enough but could not use for his epic purposes, attract the ardent affections and hopes of the people; and Asclepius, whom the old poet did not recognize as a god, wins a conspicuous place in the later shrines. But much that has been said of the Homeric may be said of the later classical theology. The deities remain anthropomorphic, and appear as clearly defined individuals. A certain hierarchy is recognized; Zeus is supreme, even in the city of Athena, but each of the higher divinities played many parts, and local enthusiasm could frustrate the departmental system of divine functions; certain members of the pantheon had a preference for the life of the fields, but as the polis emerged from the village communities, Demeter, Hermes, Artemis and others, the gods and goddesses of the husbandmen and shepherds, become powers of the council-chamber and the market-place. The moral ideas that we find in the Homeric religion are amply attested by cult-records of the later period. The deities are regarded on the whole as beneficent, though revengeful if wronged or neglected; the cult-titles used in prayer, which more than any other witnesses reveal the thought and wish of the worshipper, are nearly always euphemistic, the doubtful title of Demeter Erinys being possibly an exception. The important cults of Zeus Ἱκέσιος and Προστρόπαιος, the suppliant’s protecting deity, embody the ideas of pity and mercy that mark advanced religion; and many momentous steps in the development of morality and law were either suggested or assisted by the state-religion. For example, the sanctity of the oath, the main source of the secular virtue of truthfulness, was originally a religious sanction, and though the Greek may have been prone to perjury, yet the Hellenic like the Hebraic religious ethics regarded it as a heinous sin. The sanctity of family duties, the sacredness of the life of the kinsman, were ideas fostered by early Hellenic religion before they generated principles of secular ethics. In the post-Homeric period, the development of the doctrine of purity, which was associated with the Apolline religion, combining with a growing dread of the ghost-world, stimulated and influenced in many important ways the evolution of the Greek law concerning homicide.[4] And the beginnings of international law and morality were rooted in religious sanctions and taboo. In fact, Greek state-life was indebted in manifold ways to Greek religion, and the study of the Greek oracles would alone supply sufficient testimony of this. In many cases the very origin of the state was religious, the earliest polis sometimes having arisen under the shadow of the temple.

Yet as Greek religion was always in the service of the state, and the priest a state-official, society was the reverse of theocratic. Secular advance, moral progress and the march of science, could never long be thwarted by religious tradition; on the contrary, speculative thought and artistic creation were considered as attributes of divinity. We may say that the religion of Hellas penetrated the whole life of the people, but rather as a servant than as a master.

Distinct and apart from these public worships and those of the clan and family were the mystic cults of Eleusis, Andania and Samothrace, and the private services of the mystic brotherhoods. The latter were scattered broadcast over Hellas, and the influence of the former was strengthened and their significance intensified by the wave of mysticism that spread at first from the north from the beginning of the 7th century onwards, and derived its strength from the power of Dionysus and the Orphic brotherhoods. New ideals and hopes began to stir in the religious consciousness, and we find a strong Salvationist tendency, the promise of salvation relying on mystic communion with the deity. Also a new and vital principle is at work; Orphism is the only force in Greek religion of a clear apostolic purpose, for it broke the barriers of the old tribal and civic cults, and preached its message to bond and free, Hellene and barbarian.

The later history of Greek paganism is mainly concerned with its gradual penetration by Oriental ideas and worships, and the results of this θεοκρασία are discerned in an ever increasing mysticism and a tendency towards monotheism. Obliterated as the old Hellenic religion appeared to be by Christianity, it nevertheless retained a certain life, though transformed, under the new creed to which it lent much of its hieratic organization and religious terminology. The indebtedness of Christianity to Hellenism is one of the most interesting problems of comparative religion; and for an adequate estimate a minute knowledge of the ritual and the mystic cults of Hellas is one of the essential conditions.

Bibliography.—Older Authorities: A. Maury, Histoire des religions de la Grèce antique (3 vols., 1857-1859); Welcker, Griechische Götterlehre (3 vols., 1857-1863); Preller, Griechische Mythologie, 2 vols. (4th edition by C. Robert, 1887), all antiquated in regard to theory, but still of some value for collection of materials. Recent Literature—(a) General Treatises: O. Gruppe, “Griechische Mythologie und Religionsgeschichte” in Iwan von Müller’s Handbuch der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, v. 2. 2 (1902–1906); L. R. Farnell’s Cults of the Greek States, 4 vols. (1896–1906, vol. 5, 1908); Miss Jane Harrison’s Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (ed. 1908); Chantepie de la Saussaye’s Lehrbuch der Religionsgeschichte (Greek section, 1904); (b) Special Works or Dissertations: articles in Roscher’s Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie, and Pauly-Wissowa Encyklopädie (1894–  ); Immerwahr, Kulte und Mythen Arkadiens (1891); Wide, Lakonische Kulte (1893); de Visser, De Graecorum diis non referentibus speciem humanam (Leiden, 1900). Greek Ritual and Festivals—A. Mommsen, Feste der Stadt Athen (1898); P. Stengel, “Die griechischen Sacralaltertümer” in Iwan von Müller’s Handbuch, v. 3 (1898); W. H. D. Rouse, Greek Votive Offerings (1902). Greek Religious Thought and Speculation—L. Campbell’s Religion in Greek Literature (1898); Ducharme, La Critique des traditions religieuses chez les Grecs des origines au temps de Plutarque (Paris, 1904). See also articles on individual deities, and cf. Roman Religion; Mysteries; Mithras.  (L. R. F.) 

  1. This has often been explained as a result of Mutterrecht, or reckoning descent through the female: for reasons against this hypothesis see L. R. Farnell in Archiv für vergleichende Religionswissenschaft (1904); cf. A. J. Evans, “Mycenaean Tree and Pillar Cult,” in Journ. of Hellenic Studies (1901).
  2. V. Bérard has recently revived the discredited theory of a prevalent Phoenician influence in his ingenious but uncritical work, L’Origine des cultes arcadiens. M. P. Foucart believes in very early borrowing from Egypt, as explaining much in the religion of Demeter and Dionysus; see Les Grands Mystères d’Éleusis and Le Culte de Dionysos en Attique.
  3. This became very powerful from the 7th century onward, and there are reasons for supposing that it existed in the pre-Homeric, or Mycenaean, period; vide Rohde’s Psyche (new edition), Tsountas and Manatt, The Mycenaean Age.
  4. See L. R. Farnell, Evolution of Religion (Hibbert Lectures, 1905), pp. 139-152.