The Gods of Greece
By John Kelman
It has become fashionable to divide the rival tendencies of modern thought into the two classes of Hellenistic and Hebraistic. The division is an arbitrary and somewhat misleading one, which has done less than justice both to the Greek and to the Hebrew genius. It has associated Greece with the idea of lawless and licentious paganism, and Israel with that of a forbidding and joyless austerity. Paganism is an interesting word, whose etymology reminds us of a time when Christianity had won the towns, while the villages still worshipped heathen gods. It is difficult to define the word without imparting into our thought of it the idea of the contrast between Christian dogma and all other religious thought and life. This, however, would be an extremely unfair account of the matter, and, in the present volume, the word will be used without reference either to nationality or to creed, and it will stand for the materialistic and earthly tendency as against spiritual idealism of any kind. Obviously such paganism as this, is not a thing which has died out with the passing of heathen systems of religion. It is terribly alive in the heart of modern England, whether formally believing or unbelieving. Indeed there is the twofold life of puritan and pagan within us all. A recent well-known theologian wrote to his sister: “I am naturally a cannibal, and I find now my true vocation to be in the South Sea Islands, not after your plan, to be Arnold to a troop of savages, but to be one of them, where they are all selfish, lazy, and brutal.” It is this universality of paganism which gives its main interest to such a study as the present. Paganism is a constant and not a temporary or local phase of human life and thought, and it has very little to do with the question of what particular dogmas a man may believe or reject.
Thus, for example, although the Greek is popularly accepted as the type of paganism and the Christian of idealism, yet the lines of that distinction have often been reversed. Christianity has at times become hard and cold and lifeless, and has swept away primitive national idealisms without supplying any new ones. The Roman ploughman must have missed the fauns whom he had been accustomed to expect in the thicket at the end of his furrow, when the new faith told him that these were nothing but rustling leaves. When the swish of unseen garments beside the old nymph-haunted fountain was silenced, his heart was left lonely and his imagination impoverished. Much charm and romance vanished from his early world with the passing of its pagan creatures, and indeed it is to this cause that we must trace the extraordinarily far-reaching and varied crop of miraculous legends of all sorts which sprang up in early Catholic times. These were the protest of unconscious idealism against the bare world from which its sweet presences had vanished.
“In th’ olde dayes of the King Arthour,
Of which that Britons speken greet honour,
Al was this land fulfild of fayerye.
The elf-queen, with hir joly companye,
Daunced ful ofte in many a grene mede;
This was the olde opinion, as I rede.
But now can no man see none elves mo.
For now the grete charitee and prayeres
Of limitours and othere holy freres,
This maketh that there been no fayeryes.
For ther as wont to walken was an elf,
Ther walketh now the limitour himself.”
Against this impoverishment the human revolt was inevitable, and it explains the spirit in such writers as Shelley and Goethe. Children of nature, who love the sun and the grass, and are at home upon the earth, their spirits cry for something to delight and satisfy them, nearer than speculations of theology or cold pictures of heaven. Wordsworth, in his famous lines, has expressed the protest in the familiar words:—
“Great God, I’d rather be
A Pagan, suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea,
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.”
The early classic thought which found its most perfect expression in the mythology of Greece was not originally or essentially pagan. It was humanistic, and represented the response of man’s spirit to that free and beautiful spirit which he found in nature around him. All such symbolism of Greek religion as that of the worship of Dionysus and Ceres, shows this. In these cults the commonest things of life, the wine and corn wherewith man sustained himself, assumed a higher and richer meaning. Food and drink were not mere sensual gratifications, but divine gifts, as they are in the twenty-third Psalm; and the whole material world was a symbol and sacrament of spiritual realities and blessings. Similarly the ritual of Eleusis interpreted man’s common life into a wonderful world of mystic spirituality. Thus there was a great fund of spiritual insight of the finest and most beautiful sort in the very heart of that life which has thoughtlessly been adopted as the type of paganism.
Yet the history of Greece affords the explanation and even the justification of the popular idea. The pagan who is in us all, tends ever to draw us downwards from sacramental and symbolic ways of thinking to the easier life of the body and the earth. On the one hand, for blood that is young and hot, the life of sense is overwhelming. On the other hand, for the weary toiler whose mind is untrained, the impression of the world is that of heavy clay. Each in his own way finds idealism difficult to retain. The spirituality of nature floats like a dream before the mind of poets, and is seen now and then in wistful glimpses by every one; but it needs some clearer and less elusive form, as well as some definite association with conscience, if it is to be defended against the pull of the green earth. It has been well said that, for the Greek, God was the view; but when the traveler goes forward into the view, he meets with many things which it is dangerous to identify with God. For the young spirit of the early times the temptation to earthliness was overwhelming. The world was fair, its gates were open, and its barriers all down. Men took from literature and from religion just as much of spirituality as they understood and as little as they desired, and the effect was swift and inevitable in that degeneration which reached its final form in the degraded sensuality of the later Roman Empire.
The confusing element in all such inquiry lies in the fact that one can never get an unmixed paganism nor a perfect idealism. Just as the claims of body and spirit are in our daily life inextricably interwoven, so the Greek thought hung precariously between the two, and was always more or less at the mercy of the individual interpreter and of the relative strength of his tastes and passions. So we shall find it all through the course of these studies. It would be preposterous to deny some sort of idealism to almost any pagan who has ever lived. The contrast between pagan and idealist is largely a matter of proportion and preponderating tendency: yet the lines are clear enough to enable us to work with this distinction and to find it valuable and illuminating.
The fundamental fact to remember in studying any of the myths of Greece is, that we have here a composite and not a simple system of thought and imagination. There are always at least two layers: the primitive, and the Olympian which came later. The primitive conceptions were those afforded by the worship of ghosts, of dead persons, and of animals. Miss Jane Harrison has pointed out in great detail the primitive elements which lingered on through the Olympian worship. Perhaps the most striking instance which she quotes is the Anthesteria, or festival of flowers, at the close of which the spirits were dismissed with the formula, “Depart, ye ghosts, the revels now are ended.” Mr. Andrew Lang has suggested that the animals associated with gods and goddesses (such as the mouse which is found in the hand, or the hair, or beside the feet of the statues of Apollo, the owl of Minerva, etc.) are relics of the earlier worship. This would satisfactorily explain much of the disreputable element which lingered on side by side with the noble thoughts of Greek religion. The Olympians, a splendid race of gods, representing the highest human ideals, arrived with the Greeks; but for the sake of safety, or of old association, the primitive worship was retained and blended with the new. In the extreme case of human sacrifice, it was retained in the form of surrogates—little wooden images, or even actual animals, being sacrificed in lieu of the older victims. But all along the line, while the new gods brought their spiritual conceptions, the older ones held men to a cruder and more fleshly way of thinking. There is a similar blend of new and old in all such movements as that of the Holy Grail and the Arthurian legends, where we can see the combination of Christian and pagan elements so clearly as to be able to calculate the moral and spiritual effect of each. Thus we have in the early Greek mythology much of real paganism involved in the retention of the old and earth-bound gods which attached themselves to the nobler Olympians as they came, and dragged them down to the ancient level.
This blending may be seen very clearly in the mythology of Homer and Hesiod. There it has been so thorough that the only trace of superposition which we can find is the succession of the dynasties of Chronos and Jupiter. The result is the most appalling conception of the morality of celestial society. No earthly state could hope to continue for a decade upon the principles which governed the life of heaven; and man, if he were to escape the sudden retributions which must inevitably follow anything like an imitation of his gods, must live more decently than they.
Now Homer was, in a sense, the Bible of the Greeks, and as society improved in morals, and thought was directed more and more fearlessly towards religious questions, the puzzle as to the immoralities of the gods became acute. The religious and intellectual developments of the sixth century B.C. led to various ways of explaining the old stories. Sophocles is conciliatory, conceiving religion in a sunny good temper which will make the best of the situation whatever it is. Æschylus is sombre and deeply tragic, while yet he remains orthodox on the side of the gods. But Euripides is angry at the old scandals, and in the name of humanity his scepticism rises in protest.
It may be interesting, at this point, to glance for a little at the various theories which have been brought forward to explain the myths. The commonest of all such theories is that the divine personalities stand for the individual powers of nature. Most especially, the gods and goddesses symbolise the sun, moon, and stars, night and morning, summer and winter, and the general story of the year. No one will deny that the personification of Nature had a large share in all mythology. The Oriental mythologies rose to a large extent in this fashion. The Baals of Semitic worship all stood for one or other of the manifestations of the fructifying powers of nature, and the Chinese dragon is the symbol of the spiritual mystery of life suggested by the mysterious and protean characteristics of water. It is very natural that this should be so, and every one who has ever felt the power of the sun in the East will sympathise with Turner’s dying words, “The sun, he is God.”
As a key to mythology this theory was especially associated with the name of Plutarch among ancient writers, and it has been accepted more or less completely by a vast number of moderns. In the late Sir George Cox’s fascinating stories it was run to utter absurdity. The story is beautifully told in every case, and when we have enjoyed it and felt something of the exquisiteness of the conception and of the variety and range of thought exhibited in the fertile minds of those who had first told it, Sir George Cox draws us back sharply to the assertion that all we have been hearing really meant another phase of sunset or sunrise, until we absolutely rebel and protest that the effect is unaccountable upon so meagre a cause. It is an easy method of dealing with folk-lore. If you take the rhyme of Mary and her little lamb, and call Mary the sun and the lamb the moon, you will achieve astonishing results, both in religion and astronomy, when you find that the lamb followed Mary to school one day. This nature element, however, had undoubtedly a very considerable part in the origin of myths, and when Max Müller combines it with philology it opens a vast field of extraordinarily interesting interpretations resting upon words and their changes.
A further theory of myths is that which regards them as the stories of races told as if they had been the lives of individuals. This, as is well known, has had permanent effects upon the interpretation not only of Greek but of Hebrew ancient writings, and it throws light upon some of those chapters of Genesis which, without it, are but strings of forgotten and unpronounceable names.
But beyond all such explanations, after we have allowed for them in every possible way, there remains a conviction that behind these fascinating stories there is a certain irreducible remainder of actual fact. Individual historic figures, seen through the mists of time, walk before our eyes in the dawn. Long before history was written men lived and did striking deeds. Heroic memories and traditions of such distinguished men passed in the form of fireside tales from one generation to another through many centuries. Now they come to us, doubtless hugely exaggerated and so far away from their originals as to be unrecognisable, and yet, after all, based upon things that happened. For the stories have living touches in them which put blood into the glorious and ghostly figures, and when we come upon a piece of genuine human nature there is no possibility of mistaking it. This thing has been born, not manufactured: nor has any portrait that is lifelike been drawn without some model. Thus, through all the mist and haze of the past, we see men and women walking in the twilight—dim and uncertain forms indeed, yet stately and heroic.
Now all this has a bearing upon the main subject of our present study. Meteorology and astronomy are indeed noble sciences, but the proper study of mankind is man. While, no doubt, the sources of all early folk-lore are composite, yet it matters greatly for the student of these things whether the beginnings of religious thought were merely in the clouds, or whether they had their roots in the same earth whereon we live and labour. The heroes and great people of the early days are eternal figures, because each new generation gives them a resurrection in its own life and experience. They have eternal human meanings, beneath whatever pageantry of sun and stars the ancient heroes passed from birth to death. Soon everything of them is forgotten except the ideas about human life for which they stand. Then each of them becomes the expression of a thought common to humanity, and therefore secure of its immortality to the end of time; for the undying interest is the human interest, and all ideas which concern the life of man are immortal while man’s race lasts. In the case of such legends as those we are discussing, it is probable that beyond the mere story some such ideal of human life was suggested from the very first. Certainly, as time went on, the ideal became so identified with the hero, that to thoughtful men he came to stand for a particular idealism of human experience. Thus Pater speaks of Dionysus as from first to last a type of second birth, opening up the hope of a possible analogy between the resurrections of nature and something else, reserved for human souls. “The beautiful, weeping creatures, vexed by the wind, suffering, torn to pieces, and rejuvenescent again at last, like a tender shoot of living green out of the hardness and stony darkness of the earth, becomes an emblem or ideal of chastening and purification, and of final victory through suffering.” This theory would also explain the fact that one nation’s myths are not only similar to, but to a large extent practically identical with, those of other nations. There is a common stock of ideas supplied by the common elements of human nature in all lands and times; and these, when finely expressed, produce a common fund of ideals which will appeal to the majority of the human race.
Thus mythology was originally simple storytelling. But men, even in the telling of the story, began to find meanings for it beyond the mere narration of events; and thus there arose in connection with all stories that were early told, a certain number of judgments of what was high and admirable in human nature. These were not grounded upon philosophical or scientific bases, but upon the bed-rock of man’s experience. Out of these judgments there grew the great ideals which from first to last have commanded the spirit of man.
In this connection it is interesting to remember that in Homer the men were regarded as the means of revealing ideas and characters, and not as mere natural objects in themselves. The things among which they lived are described and known by their appearances; the men are known by their words and deeds. “There is no inventory of the features of men, or of fair women, as there is in the Greek poets of the decline or in modern novels. Man is something different from a curious bit of workmanship that delights the eye. He is a ‘speaker of words and a doer of deeds,’ and his true delineation is in speech and action, in thought and emotion.” Thus, from the first, ideas are the central and important element. They spring from and cling to stories of individual human lives, and the finest of them become ideals handed down for the guidance of the future race. The myths, with their stories of gods and men, and their implied or declared religious doctrines, are but the forms in which these ideals find expression. The ideals remain, but the forms of their expression change, advancing from cruder to finer and from more fanciful to more exactly true, with the advance of thought and culture. Meanwhile, the ideals are above the world,—dwelling, like Plato’s, in heaven,—and there are always two alternatives for every man. He may go back either with deliberate intellectual assent, or passion-led in sensual moods, to the powers of nature and the actual human stories in their crude and earthly form; or he may follow the idealisation of human experience, and discover and adopt the ideals of which the earthly stories and the nature processes are but shadows and hints. In the former case he will be a pagan; in the latter, a spiritual idealist. In what remains of this lecture, we shall consider four of the most famous Greek legends—those of Prometheus, Medusa, Orpheus, and Apollo—in the light of what has just been stated.
Prometheus, in the early story, is a Titan, who in the heavenly war had fought on the side of Zeus. It is, however, through the medium of the later story that Prometheus has exercised his eternal influence upon the thought of men. In this form of the legend he appears constantly living and striving for man’s sake as the foe of God. We hear of him making men and women of clay and animating them with celestial fire, teaching them the arts of agriculture, the taming of horses, and the uses of plants. Again we hear of Zeus, wearied with the race of men—the new divinity making a clean sweep, and wishing to begin with better material. Zeus is the lover of strength and the despiser of weakness, and from the earth with its weak and pitiful mortals he takes away the gift of fire, leaving them to perish of cold and helplessness. Then it is that Prometheus climbs to heaven, steals back the fire in his hollow cane, and brings it down to earth again. For this benefaction to the despised race Zeus has him crucified, fixed for thirty thousand years on a rock in the Asian Caucasus, where, until Herakles comes to deliver him, the vulture preys upon his liver.
Such a story tempts the allegorist, and indeed the main drift of its meaning is unmistakable. Cornutus, a contemporary of Christ, explained it “of forethought, the quick inventiveness of human thought chained to the painful necessities of human life, its liver gnawed unceasingly by cares.” In the main, and as a general description, this is quite unquestionable. Prometheus is the prototype of a thousand other figures of the same kind, not in mythology only, but in history, which tell the story of the spiritual effort of man frustrated and brought to earth. It is the story of Tennyson’s youth who
“Rode a horse with wings that would have flown
But that his heavy rider bore him down.”
Only, in the Prometheus idea, it is not a man’s senses, as in Tennyson’s poem, but the outward necessity of things, the heavy and cruel powers of nature around him, that prove too much for his aspirations. In this respect the story is singularly characteristic of the Greek spirit. That spirit was always daring with truth, feeling the risks of knowledge and gladly taking them, passionately devoted to the love of knowledge for its own sake.
The legend has, however, a deeper significance than this. One of the most elemental questions that man can ask is, What is the relation of the gods to human inquiry and freedom of thought? There always has been a school of thinkers who have regarded knowledge as a thing essentially against the gods. The search for knowledge thus becomes a phase of Titanism; and wherever it is found, it must always be regarded in the light of a secret treasure stolen from heaven against the will of contemptuous or jealous divinities. On the other hand, knowledge is obviously the friend of man. Prometheus is man’s champion, and no figure could make a stronger appeal than his. Indeed, in not a few respects he approaches the Christian ideal, and must have brought in some measure the same solution to those who were able to receive it. Few touches in literature, for instance, are finer than that in which he comforts the daughters of Ocean, speaking to them from his cross.
The idea of Titanism has become the commonplace of poets. It is familiar in Milton, Byron, Shelley, and countless others, and Goethe tells us that the fable of Prometheus lived within him. Many of the Titanic figures, while they appeared to be blaspheming, were really fighting for truth and justice. The conception of the gods as jealous and contemptuous was not confined to the Greek mythology, but has appeared within the pale of Christian faith as well as in all heathen cults. Nature, in some of its aspects, seems to justify it. The great powers appear to be arrayed against man’s efforts, and present the appearance of cruel and bullying strength. Evidently upon such a theory something must go, either our faith in God or our faith in humanity; and when faith has gone we shall be left in the position either of atheists or of slaves. There have been those who accepted the alternative and went into the one camp or the other according to their natures; but the Greek legend did not necessitate this. There was found, as in Æschylus, a hint of reconciliation, which may be taken to represent that conviction so deep in the heart of humanity, that there is “ultimate decency in things,” if one could only find it out; although knowledge must always remain dangerous, and may at times cost a man dear.
The real secret lies in the progress of thought in its conceptions of God and life. Nature, as we know and experience it, presents indeed an appalling spectacle against which everything that is good in us protests. God, so long as He is but half understood, is utterly unpardonable; and no man yet has succeeded in justifying the ways of God to men. But “to understand all is to forgive all”—or rather, it is to enter into a larger view of life, and to discover how much there is in us that needs to be forgiven. This is the wonderful story which was told by the Hebrews so dramatically in their Book of Job; and the phases through which that drama passes might be taken as the completest commentary on the myth of Prometheus which ever has been or can be written.
In two great battlegrounds of the human spirit the problem raised by Prometheus has been fought out. On the ground of science, who does not know the defiant and Titanic mood in which knowledge has at times been sought? The passion for knowing flames through the gloom and depression and savagery of the darker moods of the student. Difficulties are continually thrust into the way of knowledge. The upper powers seem to be jealous and outrageously thwarting, and the path of learning becomes a path of tears and blood. That is all that has been reached by many a grim and brave student spirit. But there is another possible explanation; and there are those who have attained to a persuasion that the gods have made knowledge difficult in order that the wise may also be the strong.
The second battleground is that of philanthropy. Here also there has been an apparently reasonable Titanism. Men have struggled in vain, and then protested in bitterness, against the waste and the meaninglessness of the human débâcle. The only aspect of the powers above them has seemed to many noble spirits that of the sheer cynic. He that sitteth in the heavens must be laughing indeed. In Prometheus the Greek spirit puts up its daring plea for man. It pleads not for pity merely, but for the worth of human nature. The strong gods cannot be justified in oppressing man upon the plea that might is right, and that they may do what they please. The protest of Prometheus, echoed by Browning’s protest of Ixion, appeals to the conscience of the world as right; and, kindling a noble Titanism, puts the divine oppressor in the wrong. Finally, there dawns over the edge of the ominous dark, the same hope that Prometheus vaguely hinted to the Greek. To him who has understood the story of Calvary, the ultimate interpretation of all human suffering is divine love. That which the cross of Prometheus in all its outrageous cruelty yet hints as in a whisper, the Cross of Christ proclaims to the end of time, shouting down the centuries from its blood and pain that God is love, and that in all our affliction He is afflicted.
Another myth of great beauty and far-reaching significance is that of Medusa. It is peculiarly interesting on account of its double edge, for it shows us both the high possibilities of ideal beauty and the deepest depths of pagan horror. Robert Louis Stevenson tells us how, as he hung between life and death in a flooded river of France, looking around him in the sunshine and seeing all the lovely landscape, he suddenly felt the attack of the other side of things. “The devouring element in the universe had leaped out against me, in this green valley quickened by a running stream. The bells were all very pretty in their way, but I had heard some of the hollow notes of Pan’s music. Would the wicked river drag me down by the heels, indeed? and look so beautiful all the time?” It was in this connection that he gave us that striking and most suggestive phrase, “The beauty and the terror of the world.” It is this combination of beauty and terror for which the myth of Medusa stands. It finds its meaning in a thousand instances. On the one hand, it is seen in such ghastly incidents as those in which the sheer horror of nature’s action, or of man’s crime, becomes invested with an illicit beauty, and fascinates while it kills. On the other hand, it is seen in all of the many cases in which exquisite beauty proves also to be dangerous, or at least sinister. “The haunting strangeness in beauty” is at once one of the most characteristic and one of the most tragic things in the world.
There were three sisters, the Gorgons, who dwelt in the Far West, beyond the stream of ocean, in that cold region of Atlas where the sun never shines and the light is always dim. Medusa was one of them, the only mortal of the trio. She was a monster with a past, for in her girlhood she had been the beautiful priestess of Athene, golden-haired and very lovely, whose life had been devoted to virgin service of the goddess. Her golden locks, which set her above all other women in the desire of Neptune, had been her undoing: and when Athene knew of the frailty of her priestess, her vengeance was indeed appalling. Each lock of the golden hair was transformed into a venomous snake. The eyes that had been so love-inspiring were now bloodshot and ferocious. The skin, with its rose and milk-white tenderness, had changed to a loathsome greenish white. All that remained of Medusa was a horrid thing, a mere grinning mask with protruding beast-like tusks and tongue hanging out. So dreadful was the aspect of the changed priestess, that her face turned all those who chanced to catch sight of it to stone. There is a degree of hideousness which no eyes can endure; and so it came to pass that the cave wherein she dwelt, and all the woods around it, were full of men and wild beasts who had been petrified by a glance of her,—grim fossils immortalised in stone,—while the snakes writhed and the red eyes rolled, waiting for another victim.
This was not a case into which any hope of redemption could enter, and there was nothing for it but to slay her. To do this, Perseus set out upon his long journey, equipped with the magic gifts of swiftness and invisibility, and bearing on his arm the shield that was also a mirror. The whole picture is infinitely dreary. As he travels across the dark sea to the land where the pillars of Atlas are visible far off, towering into the sky, the light decreases. In the murky and dangerous twilight he forces the Graiai, those grey-haired sisters with their miserable fragmentary life, to bestir their aged limbs and guide him to the Gorgons’ den. By the dark stream, where the yellow light brooded everlastingly, he reached at last that cave of horrors. Well was it then for Perseus that he was invisible, for the snakes that were Medusa’s hair could see all round. But at that time Medusa was asleep and the snakes asleep, and in the silence and twilight of the land where there is “neither night nor day, nor cloud nor breeze nor storm,” he held the magic mirror over against the monster, beheld her in it without change or injury to himself, severed the head, and bore it away to place it on Athene’s shield.
It is very interesting to notice how Art has treated the legend. It was natural that so vivid an image should become a favourite alike with poets and with sculptors, but there was a gradual development from the old hideous and terrible representations, back to the calm repose of a beautiful dead face. This might indeed more worthily record the maiden’s tragedy, but it missed entirely the thing that the old myth had said. The oldest idea was horrible beyond horror, for the darker side of things is always the most impressive to primitive man, and sheer ugliness is a category with which it is easy to work on simple minds. The rudest art can achieve such grotesque hideousness long before it can depict beauty. Later, as we have seen, Art tempered the face to beauty, but in so doing forgot the meaning of the story. It was the old story that has been often told, of the fair and frail one who had fallen among the pitiless. For her there was no compassion either in mortals or in immortals. It was the tragedy of sweet beauty desecrated and lost, the petrifying horror of which has found its most unflinching modern expression in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Corruptio optimi pessima.
To interpret such stories as these by any reference to the rising sun, or the rivalry between night and dawn, is simply to stultify the science of interpretation. It may, indeed, have been true that most of those who told and heard the tale in ancient times accepted it in its own right, and without either the desire or the thought of further meanings. Yet, even told in that fashion, as it clung to memory and imagination, it must continually have reminded men of certain features of essential human nature, which it but too evidently recorded. Here was one of the sad troop of soulless women who appear in the legends of all the races of mankind. Medusa had herself been petrified before she turned others to stone. The horror that had come upon her life had been too much to bear, and it had killed her heart within her.
So far of passion and the price the woman’s heart has paid for it. But this story has to do also with Athene, on whose shield Medusa’s head must rest at last. For it is not passion only, but knowledge, that may petrify the soul. Indeed, the story of passion can only do this when the dazzling glamour of temptation has passed, and in place of it has come the cold knowledge of remorse. Then the sight of one’s own shame, and, on a wider scale, the sight of the pain and the tragedy of the world, present to the eyes of every generation the spectacle of victims standing petrified like those who had seen too much at the cave’s mouth in the old legend.
It is peculiarly interesting to contrast the story of Medusa with its Hebrew parallel in Lot’s wife. Both are women presumably beautiful, and both are turned to stone. But while the Greek petrifaction is the result of too direct a gaze upon the horrible, the Hebrew is the result of too loving and desirous a gaze upon the coveted beauty of the world. Nothing could more exactly represent and epitomise the diverse genius of the nations, and we understand the Greek story the better for the strong contrast with its Hebrew parallel. To the Greek, ugliness was dangerous; and the horror of the world, having no explanation nor redress, could but petrify the heart of man. To the Hebrew, the beauty of the world was dangerous, and man must learn to turn away his eyes from beholding vanity.
The legend of Medusa is a story of despair, and there is little room in it for idealism of any kind; and yet there may be some hint, in the reflecting shield of Perseus, of a brighter and more heartening truth. The horror of the world we have always with us, and for all exquisite spirits like those of the Greeks there is the danger of their being marred by the brutality of the universe, and made hard and cold in rigid petrifaction by the too direct vision of evil. Yet for such spirits there is ever some shield of faith, in whose reflection they may see the darkest horrors and yet remain flesh and blood. Those who believe in life and love, whose religion—or at least whose indomitable clinging to the beauty they have once descried—has taught them sufficient courage in dwelling upon these things, may come unscathed through any such ordeal. But for that, the story is one of sheer pagan terror. It came out of the old, dark pre-Olympian mythology (for the Gorgons are the daughters of Hades), and it embodied the ancient truth that the sorrow of the world worketh death. It is a tragic world, and the earth-bound, looking upon its tragedy, will see in it only the macabre, and feel that graveyard and spectral air which breathes about the haunted pagan sepulchre.
Another myth in which we see the contrast between essential paganism and idealism is that of Orpheus. The myth appears in countless forms and with innumerable excrescences, but in the main it is in three successive parts. The first of these tells of the sweet singer loved by all the creatures, the dear friend of all the world, whose charm nothing that lived on earth could resist, and whose spell hurt no creature whom it allured. The conception stands in sharp contrast to the ghastly statuary that adorned Medusa’s precincts. Here, with a song whose sweetness surpassed that of the Sirens, nature, dead and living both (for all lived unto Orpheus), followed him with glad and loving movement. Nay, not only beasts and trees, but stones themselves and even mountains, felt in the hard heart of them the power of this sweet music. It is one of the most perfect stories ever told—the precursor of the legends that gathered round Francis of Assisi and many a later saint and artist. It is the prophecy from the earliest days of that consummation of which Isaiah was afterwards to sing and St. Paul to echo the song, when nature herself would come to the perfect reconciliation for which she had been groaning and travailing through all the years.
The second part of the story tells of the tragedy of love. Such a man as Orpheus, if he be fortunate in his love, will love wonderfully, and Eurydice is his worthy bride. Dying, bitten by a snake in the grass as she flees from danger, she descends to Hades. But the surpassing love of the sweet singer dares to enter that august shadow, not to drink the Waters of Lethe only and to forget, but also to drink the waters of Eunoe and to remember. His music charms the dead, and those who have the power of death. Even the hard-hearted monarch of hell is moved for Orpheus, who
“Drew iron tears down Pluto’s cheek,
And made hell grant what love did seek.”
But the rescue has one condition. He must restrain himself, must not look upon the face of his beloved though he bears her in his arms, until they have passed the region of the shadow of death, and may see one another in the sunlight of the bright earth again. The many versions of the tragic disobedience to this condition bear eloquent testimony, not certainly to any changing phase of the sky, but to the manifold aspects of human life. According to some accounts, it was the rashness of Orpheus that did the evil—love’s impatience, that could not wait the fitting time, and, snatching prematurely that which was its due, sacrificed all. According to other accounts, it was Eurydice who tempted Orpheus, her love and pain having grown too hungry and blind. However that may be, the error was fatal, and on the very eve of victory all was lost. It was lost, not by any snatching back in which strong hands of hell tore his beloved from the man’s grasp. Within his arms the form of Eurydice faded away, and as he clutched at her his fingers closed upon the empty air. That, too, is a law deep in the nature of things. It is by no arbitrary decree that self-restraint has been imposed on love. In this, as in all other things, a man must consent to lose his life in order to find it; and those who will not accept the conditions, will be visited by no melodramatic or violent catastrophe. Love which has broken law will simply fade away and vanish.
The third part of the story is no less interesting and significant. Maddened with this second loss, so irrevocable and yet due to so avoidable a cause, Orpheus, in restless despair, wandered about the lands. For him the nymphs had now no attractions, nor was there anything in all the world but the thought of his half-regained Eurydice, now lost for ever. His music indeed remained, nor did he cast away his lute; but it was heard only in the most savage and lonely places. At length wild Thracian women heard it, furious in the rites of Dionysus. They desired him, but his heart was elsewhere, and, in the mad reaction of their savage breasts, when he refused them they tore him limb from limb. He was buried near the river Hebrus, and his head was thrown into the stream. But as the waters bore it down, the lips whose singing had charmed the world still repeated the beloved name Eurydice to the waters as they flowed.
Here again it is as if, searching for the dead in some ancient sepulchre, we had found a living man and friend. The symbolism of the story, disentangled from detail which may have been true enough in a lesser way, is clear to every reader. It tells that love is strong as death—that old sweet assurance which the lover in Canticles also discovered. Love is indeed set here under conditions, or rather it has perceived the conditions which the order of things has set, and these conditions have been violated. But still the voice of the severed head, crying out the beloved name as the waters bore it to the sea, speaks in its own exquisite way the final word. It gives the same assurance with the same thrill which we feel when we read the story of Herakles wrestling with death for the body of Alkestis, and winning the woman back from her very tomb.
But before love can be a match for death, it first must conquer life, and the early story of the power of Orpheus over the wild beasts, restoring, as it does, an earthly paradise in which there is nothing but gentleness, marks the conquest of life by love. All life’s wildness and savagery, which seem to give the lie to love continually, are after all conquerable and may be tamed. And the lesson of it all is the great persuasion that in the depth of things life is good and not evil. When we come to the second conflict, and that love which has mastered life now pits itself against death, it goes forward to the greater adventure with a strange confidence. Who that has looked upon the face of one dearly beloved who is dead, has not known the leap of the spirit, not so much in rebellion as in demand? Love is so great a thing that it obviously ought to have this power, and somehow we are all persuaded that it has it—that death is but a puppet king, and love the master of the universe after all. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is but a faltering expression of this great assurance, yet it does express it.
For it explains to all who have ears to hear, what are the real enemies of love which can weaken it in its conflict with death. The Thracian women, those drunken bacchanals that own no law but their desires, stand for the lawless claim and attack of the lower life upon the higher. They but repeat, in exaggerated and delirious form, the sad story of the forfeiture of Eurydice. It is the touch of lawlessness, of haste, of selfishness, that costs love its victory and finally slays it, so far as love can be slain.
In this wonderful story we have a pure Greek creation in the form of one of the finest sagas of the world. The battle between the pagan and ideal aspects of life is seen in countless individual touches throughout the story; but the whole tale is one continuous symbolic warning against paganism, and a plea for idealism urged in the form of a mighty contrast. Love is here seen in its most spiritual aspect. Paganism enters with the touch of lawlessness. On the large scale the battle was fought out some centuries later, in the days of the Roman Empire, for all the world to see. The two things which give their character to the centuries from Augustus to Constantine are the persistent cry of man for immortality, and the strong lusts of the flesh which silenced it. On the smaller scale of each individual life, men and women will understand to the end of time, from their own experience, the story of Orpheus.
It is peculiarly interesting to remember that the figure of the sweet singer grew into the centre of a great religious creed. The cult of Orphism, higher and more spiritual than that of either Eleusis or Dionysus, appears as early as the sixth century B.C., and reaches its greatest in the fifth and fourth centuries. The Orphic hymns proclaim the high doctrine of the divineness of all life, and open, at least for the hopes of men, the gates of immortality. The secret societies which professed the cult had the strongest possible influence upon the thought of early Athens, but their most prominent effect is seen in Plato, who derived from them his main doctrines of pre-existence, penance, reincarnation and the final purification of the soul. Even the early Christians, who hated so bitterly many of the myths of paganism, and found in them nothing but doctrines of devils, treated this story tenderly, blended the picture of Orpheus with that of their own Good Shepherd, and found it edifying to Christian faith.
One more instance may be given in the story of Apollo, in which, more perhaps than in any other, there is an amazing combination of bad and good elements. On the one hand there are the innumerable immoralities and savageries that are found in all the records of mythology. On the other hand, he who flays Marsias alive and visits the earth with plagues is also the healer of men. He is the cosmopolitan god of the brotherhood of mankind, the spirit of wisdom whose oracle acknowledged and inspired Socrates, and, generally, the incarnation of the “glory of the Lord.”
We cannot here touch upon the marvelous tales of Delos and of Delphi, nor repeat the strains that Pindar sang, sitting in his iron chair beside the shrine. This much at least we may say, that both the Apollo of Delos and the Apollo of Delphi are foreign gods, each of whom appropriated to his own use a sacred place where the ancient earth-bound religion had already established its rites. The Greeks brought with them a splendid god from their former home, but in his new shrine he was identified with a local god, very far from splendid; and this seems to be the most reasonable explanation of the inconsistency between the revolting and the beautiful elements in his worship. Pindar at least repudiated the relics of the poorer cult, and cried concerning such stories as were current then, “Oh, my tongue, fling this tale from thee; it is a hateful cleverness that slanders gods.” No one who has realized the power and glory of the Eastern sun, can wonder at the identification both of the good and bad symbolism with the orb of day. Sun-worship is indeed a form of nature-worship, and there are physical reasons obvious enough for its being able to incorporate both the clean and unclean, both the deadly and the benign legends. Yet there is a splendor in it which is seen in its attraction for such minds as those of Aurelian and Julian, and which is capable of refinement in the delicate spirituality of Mithra, that worship of the essential principle of light, the soul of sunshine. In the worship of Apollo we have a combination, than which none on record is more striking, of the finest spirituality with the crudest paganism.
Here then, in the magical arena of the early world of Greece, we see in one of its most romantic forms the age-long strife between paganism and spirituality. We have taken at random four of the most popular stories of Greece. We have found in each of them pagan elements partly bequeathed by that earlier and lower earth-bound worship which preceded the Olympians, partly added in decadent days when the mind of man was turned from the heights and groveling again. But we have seen a deeper meaning in them, far further-reaching than any story of days and nights or of years and seasons. It is a story of the aspiring spirit which is ever wistful here on the green earth (although that indeed is pleasant), and which finds its home among high thoughts, and ideas which dwell in heaven. We shall see many aspects of the same twofold thought and life, as we move about from point to point among the literature of later days. Yet we shall seldom find any phase of the conflict which has not been prophesied, or at least foreshadowed, in these legends of the dawn. The link that binds the earliest to the latest page of literature is just that human nature which, through all changes of country and of time, remains essentially the same. It is this which lends to our subject its individual as well as its historical interest. The battle is for each of us our own battle, and its victories and defeats are our own.
This is taken from Among Famous Books.