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A History of Ancient Greece

Religions Of Greece
Author: Foot Moore, George
Date: 1913

Religion In Early Greece

The Aegaean Civilisation - The Hellenic Migrations - Prehellenic and
Greek Religion - The Land - The Gods - Zeus - Artemis - Apollo - Hermes -
Athena - Aphrodite - Hera - Hephaistos - Ares - Other Gods - The Dead in Early
Greece - Homer - Influence of the Epics on Religion - Hesiod - Cosmogony and
Theogony.

The civilisation which is historically associated with the name of the
Greeks was preceded in the peninsula, on the confronting coasts of Asia Minor,
and on the islands, by a high civilisation of a distinct type and of great
antiquity. The surprising wealth of this civilisation and the advanced stage
of its artistic development were first revealed by Schliemann's discoveries at
Mycenaean, and this, combined with the leading part which Agamemnon has in the
Homeric poems as the head of the Greeks in the expedition against Troy, made
the name Mycenaean seem an appropriate designation for the civilisation and
its products. More recent excavations in other quarters have shown that the
so-called Mycenaean civilisation not only embraced a wider area in the eastern
Mediterranean basin than was imagined, but that it spread, not from the
peninsula to the islands, but from the islands to the continental Greece.
Later writers, therefore, prefer the more comprehensive and non-committal term
"Aegean."

The discoveries in Crete since 1893 have made it year by year more
apparent that the characteristic Aegaean art had its origin and highest
development on that island. Egyptian objects found in the palaces of Crete
and Cretan wares or representations of them in Egyptian tombs securely
establish certain fundamental synchronisms, and make it possible to assign
dates to the principal epochs in Cretan art and architecture. The last of the
three great periods into which this history is divided by archaelogists - a
period on the whole of decadence - was contemporary with the Eighteenth and
Nineteenth Egyptian Dynasties, that is, say about 1600-1200 B.C.; the
preceding period, the culmination of the civilisation, includes the time of
the Twelfth and Thirteenth Dynasties, so that its prime falls, at the latest,
about 2000 B.C. Behind this lies the long period of evolution (Minoan I, of
Evans); while beneath this stratum at Cnossus lies the debris of neolithic
occupation to the depth in places of twenty feet, showing that the site had
been continuously inhabited for many centuries. Disregarding this, the
beginnings of Cretan civilisation as represented by Minoan I are probably as
old as the pyramid age in Egypt or the Sumerian civilisation of southern
Babylonia. Commerce with Egypt was early established; Egyptian decorative
motives may be recognised in Cretan art at several stages, but they are
developed in accordance with the native genius and tradition, never slavishly
imitated. On the other hand, there is no trace of Babylonian influence. The
Cretans were early in possession of a hieroglyphic writing whose symbols have
no connection with the Egyptian characters; this was superseded toward the end
of the second great period (contemporary with the Thirteenth Egyptian Dynasty)
by a linear script, of which two distinct, but not necessarily independent,
types are recognised.

From Crete this civilization spread to the Cyclades, and to Greece, where
its monuments have been discovered at many centres from Laconia to Thessaly,
to western Asia Minor, and to Cyprus, where it found a cognate indigenous
civilisation already considerably advanced, and whence, in turn, the products
of Aegaean art or domestic imitations of them reached seaboard Syria and
Phoenicia. In Cyprus, too, the Mesopotamian and the Aegaean cultures met, and
this contact and fusion gives their peculiar character to the Cypriote
remains. The Mycenaean age in continental Greece, the age of the tombs in the
acropolis of Mycenae and at Tiryns, is contemporary in general with the last
period of the Minoan civilisation in Crete.

At what time peoples of Hellenic stock established themselves in Greece
it is impossible to determine; tradition preserves no memory of the movement.
It is certain, however, that they came in from the north, and probable that
they were pushed farther and farther southward by following waves of migration
of Indo-Germanic tribes from the Balkans and the Danube valley, of whom the
Thracians and Illyrians were the descendants. Whether the tombs, the
citadels, and palaces at Mycenae and Tiryns and Argos were built by Greeks or
by the older population, the remains cannot tell us; that the civilisation
which they represent is prehellenic there can be no doubt. The first Hellenic
migration was followed, apparently after a considerable interval, by a second
invasion of Greek tribes from the northwest, to which, unlike the former, many
traditions bear witness. They did not displace their predecessors, but pushed
through into the Peloponnesus, where in historical times they formed the bulk
of the population, and thence to the Cyclades, Crete, and southeastern Asia
Minor. This Dorian movement probably took place not later than the twelfth
century; the Achaean migration must have preceded it by some centuries.

The discoveries in Crete enable us to form some notion of its religion.
There were no temples; but altars have been found in the palace courts, and in
one place at least what seems to be a temenos, or consecrated enclosure.
Certain small chambers in the palaces at Cnossus and Feistiest apparently
served as a cella or chapel. The Dictaean cave and the cave on Mount Ida,
both of which are connected in Greek myths with the birth of Zeus, were
probably places of worship from the remotest times. Buildings decorated with
religious symbols are frequently figured on gems or in frescos, and have been
interpreted as representations of shrines, but it is possible that they are
meant rather for the facade of a palace. Among the symbols to which religious
significance attaches are a conventionalised pair of bull's horns, which have
been called, somewhat awkwardly, "horns of consecration," and the bipennis, or
double-bitted axe, which occurs with such great frequency as to be a
characteristic feature of the Minoan art. Sacred trees are often figured; and
there is no reason to doubt that the Cretans, like the Greeks of historic
times, worshipped sacred stones, whether rude or shaped by human hands, though
it is very doubtful whether all the pillars and table legs in which the
English explorers recognise what they call "baetyls" were really objects of
religious veneration.

Small idols in rough semblance, or at least suggestion, of the human form
are found even in neolithic strata which antedate the rise of the Minoan
civilisation, and persist without much improvement to the latest times. They
are probably for the most part amulets or votive offerings; rude little idols
were found in the palace chapel at Cnossus also. Works of a much more
advanced art are the faience figurines handling serpents, which are thought to
be the great Cretan goddess and her acolytes. The imprint of a seal found at
Cnossus shows a goddess standing on a rocky peak, with lionesses rampant on
either side. She wears a flounced robe; in her left hand she brandishes a
sceptre or spear, while her dishevelled hair streams wildly. A worshipper
stands before her on the ground in a posture of adoration; behind her is the
front of an edifice decorated with horns. Another seal impression exhibits a
goddess in long robe and peaked cap striding, spear or staff in hand, by the
side of a lion. Various acts of worship are depicted - adoration, libation,
offering. Scenes from a sacrifice are painted in elaborate detail on a
sarcophagus from Hagia Triada on the southern side of the island.

In the centres of the Mycenaean civilisation in Greece little has been
found that throws light on the gods or religious rites. The tombs, however,
at Mycenae and elsewhere reveal beliefs about the existence after death which
are common to all mankind, while in their forms a connection with Crete may be
clearly traced. They are of various types: pit and shaft graves, structural
tombs with domed roof, or let into the hillside and entered by a long gallery,
like the so-called Treasury of Atreus at Mycenae. Whatever the fashion of
their abode, the dead were supplied with such things as belonged to their
estate on earth - arms, ornaments, vessels in precious materials or of
ingenious art, figurines - in short, the familiar funeral furniture. Food and
drink were provided at the time of burial and subsequently. Human bones have
been found in situations which make it probable that men were killed at some
funerals in order that they might accompany and serve their dead lord, a
custom of which reminiscences are preserved in the epic.

That the religion of the Greek invaders was influenced in many ways by
that of the more advanced civilisation of which they made themselves heirs
cannot well be questioned. In view of the pre-eminence of a great goddess in
the religion of Crete and the cognate religions of Asia Minor, it is natural
to surmise that certain Greek religions which exhibit the same characteristics
were taken over from the older inhabitants; and confirmation of this
conjecture in a particular instance is given by the excavations on the site of
the Argive Heraeum, which show that a goddess had been worshipped there from
immemorial times. With our present knowledge it is not possible to define or
demonstrate the influence of the Mycenaean religion on that of the Greeks; but
it is important to keep in mind the fact that Greek civilisation and religion
was not purely an evolution of what the Greeks brought with them into the
land, but appropriated and assimilated much that they found there.

In the first enthusiasm of the comparative study of Indo-Germanic
languages and mythology, it was thought that the Vedas had much light to shed
on the religions of the European branch of the race, which was then generally
believed to have migrated westward from a common centre in high Asia, whence
the ancestors of the Aryo-Indians struck off southward. Scholars made bold to
reconstruct the primitive Indo-Germanic religion as well as the primitive
Indo-Germanic speech. More cautious philology, broader knowledge of the
history of religions, sounder principles in the interpretation of myths, have
left little of these combinatory hypotheses, which their authors often mistook
for scientific results; and the residuum is of small significance for
religion. A sky god was worshipped by many of the Indo-Germanic peoples, and
the name of Dyaus, Zeus, Juppiter, Ziu, is common to the Vedic Indians,
Greeks, Romans, and Teutons; but it is only among the Greeks and Romans that
he becomes the head of the pantheon as the sky god of the Mongols is in China.
The connection of the name Varuna with Ouranos is doubtful, and beyond this
etymological identity - if it be one - the two deities have not the smallest
resemblance. Ushas-Eos-Aurora, the rosy dawn, is a figure of mythological
poetry rather than religion; Surya-Helios-Sol is the divine sun, but
sun-worship is not distinctively, nor even pre-eminently, Indo-European. The
Acvins, the twin horsemen, helpers of men in distress on land or sea, are
doubtless identical with the Dioskouroi; the case is unique, and significant
in its solitariness. The myth of Hercules and Cacus is a counterpart to that
of Indra and the Panis, and other bits of myth and folklore may, with more or
less plausibility, be connected. But when the largest allowance is made, it
remains true that to an understanding of the religion of the Greeks the Vedas
have no considerable contribution to make.

The physical features of the area in which the Aegaean and Hellenic
civilisations were evolved and flourished present the strongest contrast to
Egypt and Babylonia. The valley of the Nile and the alluvial plain of the
Euphrates and Tigris are unbroken by any natural divisions; the same climate,
the same productions, the same cultivation, prevail through their whole
extent. They were predestined by their very configuration not only to become
the cradles of civilisation, but to be early united, more or less firmly, in
powerful kingdoms, and to develop a uniformity of culture that has something
of the monotony of the landscape, and a uniformity in the type of the plante
humaine which is unfavourable to further evolution.

The Balkan peninsula, on the other hand, is intersected in all directions
by mountains which cut it up into valleys and small plains, so that Greece has
not inaptly been called "a land in compartments." On three sides it is
surrounded by the sea, whose gulfs and bays penetrate deep into the peninsula
and, with the sounds between the mainland and the peninsula and, with the
sounds between the mainland and the adjacent islands, make many good roads and
harbours. The islands of the archipelago lie like stepping-stones across the
Aegaean to the coasts of Asia Minor, where the features of Greece itself are
repeated on a larger scale. Diversity of elevation, climate, soil,
production, occupation, is as characteristic of the Greek lands as uniformity
is of Egypt or Babylonia. Political history was preformed in nature: the
city-state, the polis, was free to live its own life within its little
territory, yet in close communication with its neighbours and open seaward to
the larger world; forming confederations with others, acknowledging the
hegemony of a more powerful city, but never, at least until Macedonian and
Roman times, losing its individuality in the mass of a great empire. To this
were added differences of stock, speech, and culture, such as distinguished
the Dorians from the Aeolians and Ionians, or the Boeotians from the people of
Attica. Everything thus tended to the variety, idiosyncrasy, originality, in
cities and individuals, which is the condition of collective progress. All
this is reflected in the Greek religions, and constitutes one of the great
charms, and also one of the chief difficulties, of a study of them.

The Greeks never produced a sacerdotal literature such as the Indian
Vedas, they had no universal priesthood like the Brahmans. There were hymns
in honour of the gods, of which some of the Homeric Hymns may be taken as
examples, and formulas of prayer for special occasions, such as the Athenian
prayer for rain; the ritual of the greater sanctuaries, particularly at the
festivals, was elaborate and splendid, and there were manifold expiations for
public and private use. It is doubtful, however, whether much of this was
ever committed to writing, and certain that it was never compiled and
systematised even for single temples. The knowledge we have of these things
comes through incidental quotations and descriptions in secular literature and
from representations of acts of worship and festival scenes in art. About the
myths, which from Homer on were the favourite subjects of poets and artists,
we are more abundantly informed, though it is necessary to remember that they
have not only been selected and embellished with aesthetic rather than
religious intent, but have not infrequently been expurgated or changed in
deference to a more refined taste or a more sensitive morality. For the very
important question of the local distribution of deities and cults, besides
literary testimonies and handbooks for travellers such as Pausanias, the
inscriptions furnish the most valuable evidence, to which additions are yearly
being made by research and excavation.

The relations of the Greek dialects show that the invaders or the
successive waves of invasion were of different tribes, and it is a natural
surmise that certain gods were peculiarly favoured by one tribe, others by
another, but the attempts to prove this in particular cases - for example,
that Apollo was originally a Dorian divinity - have not been permanently
convincing. In the age from which our earliest evidence comes, the greater
gods are gods of all the Greeks, and though their relative prominence varied
much in different regions or cities, these preferences do not coincide at all
with the dialect boundaries which may be taken in general as indicating the
settlement or migration of different groups of tribes. ^1

[Footnote 1: It would be unwarranted to infer that this state of things
existed before the immigration; the amalgamation may have taken place largely
in the course of the movement itself, and on Greek soil, though no sufficient
evidence of the fact remains.]

The greatest god in all branches of the Hellenic stock was Zeus, and his
pre-eminence undoubtedly dates from the remotest antiquity. He is not only a
god of the Greeks universally, but stands in close particular relation to the
smaller political and social groups. One of his oldest titles is Herkeios,
the "Zeus of the Fort," the protector of the village stronghold or the
fortified dwelling, whose altar stood in the courtyard of the Homeric castle,
as it stood later on the Acropolis in Athens and other cities and in the court
of private houses. As Polieus he is later the guardian of the city-state.
Several tribes or political communities regarded him as their divine
forefather (Patroios). At Athens, where Apollo took that place, Zeus was the
god of every phratry; from the altar of Zeus Phratrios the votes of the
members were brought when a father presented his child at the chapel for
enrolment in the phratry (curia). As Genethlios, Zeus blessed marriage; as
Ktesios he watched over domestic storerooms. It is probable that in such
cases Zeus has usurped the office of the functional deities whose names became
his titles in these specific aspects; but this only makes the fact more
significant: it was not beneath the majesty of Zeus to be in religion an
every-day god and serve very common uses.

Zeus, as has been observed above, is an ancient Indo-Germanic sky god,
whose name corresponds to the Vedic Dyaus. His original nature may be
discerned in Greek religion in the worship on many mountain summits, as well
as in his association with cloud and rain, with storm and lightning, and in
the fact that omens and portents in the sky are particularly "Zeus-signs". But
it does not appear that the Greeks knew that the word Zeus meant "sky"; for
them Zeus was a completely anthropomorphic deity who reigned in the heaven and
controlled meteorological phenomena, not a personification of the heaven and
its phenomena; myths that seem to us transparently to deal with the
fructification of the earth by the sky do not seem to have been so understood
by the Greeks until the sophists interpreted them in the way of their
rationalism and the Stoics developed their "physical" theory of mythology with
mixed scientific and apologetic intent.

The worship of Zeus was carried with the Greeks in all their migrations;
it cannot - like the religion of Hera, for example - be traced to any
particular centres of diffusion. A famous ancient seat of Zeus was at Dodona
in Epirus, in a region inhabited in historical times by a non-Hellenic people.
Achilles addresses his prayer: ^1

"King Zeus, god of Dodona, Pelasgian, dwelling in far lands,
Guarding the wintry Dodona, while ever around thee the Selloi,
Oracle prophets, unwashen of foot, lie prone on the bare earth."

[Footnote 1: Iliad, XVI, 233 ff.]

The sanctuary stood in an oak grove; to the copious springs of water the
god probably owes the title by which he was invoked in the local cult, Naios.
Zeus was here associated with Dione, whose name marks her as the feminine
counterpart of Zeus, presumably the oldest of his partners. The oracle of
Dodona was the only one in which the response came direct from Zeus, and if in
later times it had to take second place to the Pythia of Apollo at Delphi, no
other oracle could vie with it in credit. The oldest mode of divination seems
to have been the interpretation of the voices of the wind in the tops of the
oak-trees. ^2 Pausanias has preserved a prayer of the priestesses of Dodona,
doubtless from a comparatively late time: "Zeus was, Zeus is, Zeus will be, O
great Zeus! Earth sends forth fruits, wherefore proclaim the name of mother
Earth!"

[Footnote 2: Odyssey, XIV, 327; XIX, 296.]

It is probable that Zeus and Dione succeeded at Dodona an older pair of
powers whose presence was recognised in the springs and who may already have
been resorted to for omens. The same thing repeated itself in many other
places; the Greek immigrants identified their own chief god with the greater
powers whom their predecessors called by different local names, taking over
the peculiar rites with which the numen loci was worshipped, and borrowing or
inventing myths that explained the strange features of the worship. This is
strikingly illustrated by some of the Arcadian cults of Zeus. Thus, Zeus
Lykaios was worshipped on the summit of Mount Lykaion in southwestern Arcadia;
in the inviolable precincts (abaton) stood an altar of earth and two eagles
facing the east. The myth ran that the founder, Lykaon, had inaugurated the
altar by the sacrifice of a child, whereupon he was changed into a wolf and
fled; only after nine years of this expiatory lycanthropy was he restored to
human form and society. It seems clear that the old deity of the mountain,
whose name as well as the myth connects him with the wolf, was worshipped with
human sacrifice, and has taken the name of Zeus in exchange for his savage
cult. Human sacrifices were offered to Zeus at other Arcadian shrines - Mount
Ithome is particularly named. They were not confined, however, to the wilds
of Arcadia, but were connected with Zeus Laphystios in both Thessaly
(Phthiotis) and Boeotia, in whose worship they survived to classical times

The Cretan Zeus, again, whose birth is the theme of a singularly savage
myth, and whose tomb was shown at more than one place in the island, whom the
Greeks themselves treated almost as a distinct deity, represents a fusion of a
native god and his myth with the Greek Zeus. Thus, while Zeus was the
universal name for the greatest of the Greek gods, and while the titles under
which he was invoked often convey his universal functions, in cultus and myth
there were many and diverse Zeuses. The same thing is true, as we shall have
frequent occasion to observe, of all the other gods whose worship was widely
distributed.

It has been observed that Zeus was the protector of political and social
groups from the state to the household. He also took under his especial
cognisance moral relations among men. As Xenios he watches over and
vindicates the obligations of hospitality, fundamental among which is the
sacredness of the guest's person; as Horkios he presides over oath-taking and
visits the breach of faith with condign punishment; as Hikesios he is the
refuge of the suppliant, the man-slayer seeking asylum, the persecuted fleeing
from his oppressor. "Man needs must dread the jealousy of Zeus, the
suppliant's god; this is the profoundest fear among mortals." The god marks
and avenges the wrongs which man is unable to detect or punish. These
conceptions, which have a large development in the historical period, are
found already in Homer, and doubtless existed, at least in germ, in a much
earlier age.

No worship is more wide-spread among all branches of the Greek race in
the home land and in the dispersion than that of Artemis, and no figure among
the gods exhibits more varied and seemingly conflicting features, a
circumstance due in part to the influence of civilisation, which in some
regions had tamed her more completely than in others, but in much larger
measure to the fact that she supplanted all manner of wild goddesses, Hellenic
and barbarian. The notion that the primitive Artemis was the moon, though
generally entertained by the Greeks from the rise of the Stoic exegesis on and
adopted by many moderns, is supported by no early evidence, and is, indeed,
irreconcilable with the facts. The Greek Artemis was a deity of wild nature
in both the plant and animal kingdoms; she is associated with lakes and rivers
and the lush vegetation of marshes; she haunts the thickets and roams free
through the mountain forests. Wild animals belong to her domain, beasts of
prey, such as the lion, wolf, panther, the wild boar, and the bear, also the
stag, deer, and hare; the quail is her favourite among birds. "Huntress" is
one of her commonest titles, and her exploits in the chase a frequent theme of
poetry and art. But all life is her sphere; boys and girls in the flower of
youth are under her care, and she gives to mothers easy childbirth. When the
tribes of hunters come to till the soil and tempt the sea, Artemis makes the
crops grow for the husbandman, protects and guides the wayfarer on his road,
and gives a safe and prosperous voyage to mariners. The goddess not only
protects life, but takes it; her far-shot shafts bring death, particularly to
women; under various titles, such as the "Indomitable," she becomes a
dispenser of death.

That primitive ceremonies like the bear dance of the little girls at
Brauron, or such savage rites as the flogging of the Spartan youths before
Artemis Orthia, should have place in her worship is not surprising, ^1 and
stories of human sacrifice cluster about the Tauric Artemis and the Brauronian
Artemis Tauropolos, who, on the strength of their names, were early connected.
In more civilised times the semblance only remained; the knife was drawn over
the victim's throat so as to break the skin and bring a few drops of blood.
Numerous myths plainly indicate that, though this athletic bachelor-maid never
bowed her neck to the yoke of matrimony, a virginal character was not
uniformly ascribed to her. But from Homer on she is not only unwed but
unwooed - of unsullied chastity herself, she mercilessly punishes lapses among
her nymphs; ^2 and finally, in the Hippolytus of Euripides, she becomes the
exponent of an ideal of chastity as a higher state. The association of
Artemis with Apollo is not primitive, though it is as old as Homer. In the
oldest cults of Artemis, Apollo is not recognised, nor does Artemis appear in
the earliest legends of Delphi. How Artemis came to be made the sister of
Apollo it is idle to conjecture; all that can safely be said is that the
worship of the twin offspring of Leto, wherever it arose, spread from Delos.

[Footnote 1: They are probably survivals of savage initiations.]

[Footnote 2: The frail nymphs are sometimes substitutes for Artemis herself in
older versions.]

The savage origin of the Greek Artemis appears in the fact that the wild
goddesses of the barbarians were one after another identified with her - the
Thracian Bendis, the Cappadocian Ma, the Cretan Dictynna and Britomartis;
sometimes, as in the case of the Crimean goddess and the many-breasted deity
of Ephesus, the fusion is so complete that the proper name is unknown. The
Italian Diana, originally a goddess who aided women in childbirth (like Juno
Lucina) and in other perils of their sex, and a healer of diseases, was early
identified with Artemis, who had the same functions, and in consequence of
this identification Diana became a goddess of the chase and, like Artemis in
the later Greek conception, a moon goddess.

Apollo also is a god who unites the most varied characters. He is a
shepherd and a shepherds' god, and in Thessaly, and particularly in the
Peloponnesus, where very primitive cults subsisted to late times,he
supplanted, or, more exactly, absorbed various gods, who, as their names show,
were protectors of the flocks or functional deities of pastoral life. Myths
told how Apollo himself had served as shepherd to Admetos and Laomedon, and
how Hermes lifted his herds of cattle. His skill in music, his love for fair
maids and youths, which gave so many subjects to idyllic poets, are traits of
the shepherd god. Where agriculture was more important in the life of the
people than flocks and herds, Apollo was a god of the fields and crops, giving
increase to the husbandman's labours and protecting the grain against rust and
insect plagues, taking over the occupation of various functional divinities.
For seafaring communities he was the patron of navigation, guiding the ships
across the sea and home again; the dolphin is his sacred animal (Apollo
Delphinios). In this character he had shrines on many headlands and mountains
that served as landmarks for mariners. In the age of Greek expansion
overseas, Apollo, in his double capacity of oracular deity and god of
navigation, naturally became the god of colonisation.

It is as the god of revelation that his influence in the development of
Greek religion is greatest. At Delphi, the seat of his most famous oracle, he
supplanted an older oracular numen, slaying the dragon guardian of the spot
(Python). This sacrilegious blood guilt demanded expiation; only at the end
of nine years of wandering and servitude was he purged of the stain. This
phase of the myth is associated with the fact that the religious expiation of
blood guilt and the consequent restriction of the ancient law of blood
vengeance was an institution of the Delphic oracle. With the oracular god's
knowledge is probably to be connected his prominence as the god of oaths,
covenants, and treaties: he sees and punishes broken faith; even if the wrong
be done in secret. Of the many other characters of Apollo it must suffice to
mention only that he is the patron of young men, and is himself commonly
represented in art as a beautiful youth in the fresh vigour of manhood; he
naturally presides over manly sports and gymnastic exercises, and is a helper
and defender in fight. Among the Ionians he is Patroios, the god from whom
the stock claims descent. The Delian myth made him a son of Zeus and Leto and
twin brother of Artemis.

Hermes was another shepherd god, and the myth brings him into close
connection with Apollo. His first exploit - while still an infant in the
cradle - was to steal Apollo's cattle with the art of a master-thief; he was
the inventor of the lyre, which he ceded to his brother, and of the pan-pipe.
He was so swift of foot that he became the messenger of the gods and the
patron of heralds on earth. As god of flocks and herds when these were the
chief of men's possessions, he was the god of wealth. He is also guardian of
the ways, he knows the paths and guides travellers on them; later he conducts
the soul on its last journey. Night is his time, and he dispenses sleep and
dreams. He is the patron of thieves, traders, and orators; the god of the
market-place and its gatherings for trade. The name Hermes is apparently
derived from herma, a stone-heap, or cairn, or the upright stone out of which
the classic Herm was developed, a square stone pillar with human head.

Poseidon was a god of waters, originally, as the name implies, of sweet
waters - springs, and streams, and lakes; some of his most primitive cults are
inland, in Thessaly, and in Arcadia, where he is the husband of Demeter. He
is the god of horsemen; in the myth of his rivalry with Athena he creates the
horse. Chiefly, however, he is god of the sea, and in this character he was
generally worshipped throughout the Greek world. It should be observed,
however, that while in mythology Poseidon is lord of the sea as Zeus is lord
of earth and sky, in religion men prayed for favourable winds, prosperous
voyages, and safe returns, to many other gods as well - Zeus, Apollo,
Aphrodite, Athena, or the Dioskouroi.

Athena was from early times one of the greatest of the gods; in Homer she
is second only to Zeus. She has no fixed association with any sphere or
phenomena of nature, her sphere is civilisation. She is, before all, the
protectress of Greek cities (Athena Polias). In this character she is a
warrior maiden, and is figured fully armed with helmet, spear, and shield,
wearing the Gorgon's head upon a collar or breastplate. She is not, however,
an embodiment of blind battle fury and brute force, like the barbarian Ares,
but wins the victory by superior mind and skill in the art of war. Of all the
deities, she is wisest in the council. As the god of civilised communities
she is versed in the arts of peace also. She is said to have invented the
plough and taught men to yoke oxen and to break horses. In the Attic myth,
she won in the competition with Poseidon for precedence in the religion of
Athens by producing the olive-tree, a greater boon to men than Poseidon's
horse. It was, however, in the arts that her inventive genius and skill gave
her the palm. Weaving and embroidering, women's arts, were naturally under
her patronage; but the goldsmith, the potter, and homelier craftsmen like the
shoemaker, were her pupils. Athena Ergane, the Industrial Athena, was not the
least honourable of her many titles, especially when Athens became a
manufacturing city. In this character she is associated with Hephaistos, the
divine artificer, and even wears the title Hephaistia.

[See Pallas Athena: Athena was from the early times one of the greatest of the
gods.]

The worship of Aphrodite was widely distributed in Greece from Thessaly
to the Peloponnesus, in the islands, and on the coast of Asia Minor. She is
associated with the gentler aspects of nature as Artemis with its wild side;
her season is the spring with its genial moisture and fragrant breezes, its
fresh verdure and blooming flowers; calm seas and gentle winds and propitious
voyages are also her sphere. Above all, she is the goddess of fertility in
the animal kingdom, and among men the goddess of love in the widest sense of
the word. Herself imagined as the fairest of her sex, she bestows on her
favourites beauty and irresistible charm; the Graces are drawn into her train,
Eros (Desire) is her son, and Peitho (Persuasion) is her daughter. Aphrodite
is invoked alike in marriage and to abet the consummation of illicit unions;
with the restrictions which the mores of the community put upon the
gratification of desire she is not concerned. She is in this as unmoral as
nature itself, but not immoral. ^1 There is no evidence that in ordinary Greek
cults her worship was any less pure or decorous than that of other deities.
Her statues were fully draped; the nude goddess appears in Greek art only in
the age of Praxiteles, and the Hellenistic and Roman works which realistically
portray the physical perfections of the Phrynes of the time have no more to do
with Greek religion than a fleshy Flemish Magdalen by Rubens with
Christianity.

[Footnote 1: The fact that hetairai and prostitutes were particularly
assiduous in the worship Aphrodite does not prove the contrary.]

There were centres, however, where sanctified prostitution belonged to
the religion of Aphrodite. Cyprus is the most important of these, but we find
the same cult in other places, notably in Cythera, at Eryx in Sicily, and at
Corinth. Many scholars are inclined to regard Aphrodite as a foreign, more
specifically a Semitic, deity (Astarte), ^2 appropriated and imperfectly
assimilated by the Greeks. The connection of the Cyprian goddess with Syrian
cults such as those at Byblos and Aphaka is unquestionable. In religion, as
in art, Cyprus is a place where two currents meet. The whole problem assumes
a new aspect in view of the recent revelation of the Cretan-Aegaean
civilisation. Nor is the question of origins of vital concern for the history
of Greek religion. From the epic age, at least, Aphrodite is as Greek as any
deity in the pantheon; the recognition that certain cults are foreign no more
conflicts with this than does the same phenomenon in the case of other gods.
Still less does the fact that the Greeks, on the ground of similarity of
functions, identified with Aphrodite numerous foreign goddesses. The
association of Aphrodite with the planet Venus is not attested before the
fourth century.

[Footnote 2: Some punsters in etymology would even derive the name Aphrodite
from Ashtoreth.]

 

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