web counter









THE preceding sections have been intended to exhibit a sketch of that narrative matter, so abundant, so characteristic and so interesting, out of which early Grecian history and chronology have been extracted. Raised originally by hands unseen and from data unassignable, it existed first in the shape of floating talk among the people, from whence a large portion of it passed into the song of the poets, who multiplied, transformed and adorned it in a thousand various ways.

These myths or current stories, the spontaneous and earliest growth of the Grecian mind, constituted at the same time the entire intellectual stock of the age to which they belonged. They are the common root of all those different ramifications into which the mental activity of the Greeks subsequently diverged; containing, as it were, the preface and germ of the positive history and philosophy, the dogmatic theology and the professed romance, which we shall hereafter trace each in its separate development. They furnished aliment to the curiosity, and solution to the vague doubts and aspirations of the age; they explained the origin of those customs and standing peculiarities with which men were familiar; they impressed moral lessons, awakened patriotic sympathies, and exhibited in detail the shadowy, but anxious presentiments of the vulgar as to the agency of the gods : moreover they satisfied that craving for adventure and appetite for the marvelous, which has in modern times become the province of fiction proper.

It is difficult, we may say impossible, for a man of mature age to carry back his mind to his conceptions such as they stood when he was a child, growing naturally out of his imagination and feelings, working upon a scanty stock of materials, and borrowing from authorities whom he blindly followed but imperfectly apprehended. A similar difficulty occurs when we attempt to place ourselves in the historical and quasi-philosophical point of view which the ancient myths present to us. We can follow perfectly the imagination and feeling which dictated these tales, and we can admire and sympathize with them as animated, sublime, and affecting poetry; but we are too much accustomed to matter of fact and philosophy of a positive kind, to be able to conceive a time when these beautiful fancies were construed literally and accepted as serious reality.

Nevertheless it is obvious that Grecian myths cannot be either understood or appreciated except with reference to the system of conceptions and belief of the ages in which they arose. We must suppose a public not reading and writing, but seeing, hearing and telling — destitute of all records, and careless as well as ignorant of positive history with its indispensable tests, yet at the same time curious and full of eagerness for new or impressive incidents — strangers even to the rudiments of positive philosophy and to the idea of invariable sequences of nature either in the physical or moral world, yet requiring some connecting theory to interpret and regularize the phenomena before them. Such a theory was supplied by the spontaneous inspirations of an early fancy, which supposed the habitual agency of beings intelligent and voluntary like themselves, but superior in extent of power, and different in peculiarity of attributes. In the geographical ideas of the Homeric period, the earth was flat and round, with the deep and gentle ocean-stream flowing around and returning into itself: chronology, or means of measuring past time, there existed none; but both unobserved regions might be described, the forgotten past unfolded, and the unknown future predicted—through particular men specially inspired by the gods, or endowed by them with that peculiar vision which detected and interpreted passing signs and omens.

If even the rudiments of scientific geography and physics, now so universally diffused and so invaluable as a security against error and delusion, were wanting in this early stage of society, their place was abundantly supplied by vivacity of imagination and by personifying sympathy. The unbounded tendency of the Homeric Greeks to multiply fictitious persons, and to construe the phenomena which interested them into manifestations of design, is above all things here to be noticed, because the form of personal narrative, universal in their myths, is one of its many manifestations. Their polytheism (comprising some elements of an original fetichism, in which particular objects had themselves been supposed to be endued with life, volition, and design) recognized agencies of unseen beings identified and confounded with the different localities and departments of the physical world. Of such beings there were numerous varieties, and many gradations both in power and attributes; there were differences of age, sex and local residence, relations both conjugal and filial between them, and tendencies sympathetic as well as repugnant. The gods formed a sort of political community of their own, which had its hierarchy, its distribution of ranks and duties, its contentions for power and occasional revolutions, its public meetings in the agora of Olympus, and its multitudinous banquets or festivals. The great Olympic gods were in fact only the most exalted amongst an aggregate of quasi-human or ultra-human personages, —daemons, heroes, nymphs, eponymous (or name-giving) genii, identified with each river, mountain, cape, town, village, or known circumscription of territory,—besides horses, bulls, and dogs, of immortal breed and peculiar attributes, and monsters of strange lineaments and combinations, “Gorgons and Harpies and Chimeras dire”. As there were in every gens or family special gentile deities and foregone ancestors who watched over its members, forming in each the characteristic symbol and recognized guarantee of their union, so there seem to have been in each guild or trade peculiar beings whose vocation it was to cooperate or to impede in various stages of the business.

We read in the Iliad that Asteropaeus was grandson of the beautiful river Axius, and Achilles, after having slain him, admits the dignity of this parentage, but boasts that his own descent from Zeus was much greater, since even the great river Achelous and Oceanus himself is inferior to Zeus. Skamander fights with Achilles, calling his brother Simois to his aid. Tyro, the daughter of Salmoneus, falls in love with Enipeus, the most beautiful of rivers. Achelous appears as a suitor of Deianira.

There cannot be a better illustration of this feeling than what is told of the New Zealanders at the present time. The chief Heu-Hen appeals to his ancestor, the great mountain Tonga Riro: “I am the Heu-Heu, and rule over you all, just as my ancestor Tonga Riro, the mountain of snow, stands above all this land”. Heu-Heu refused permission to anyone to ascend the mountain, on the ground that it was his tipuna or ancestor: "he constantly identified himself with the mountain and called it his sacred ancestor". The mountains in New Zealand are accounted by the natives masculine and feminine: Tonga Riro, and Taranaki, two male mountains, quarreled about the affections of a small volcanic female mountain in the neighborhood.

The religious imagination of the Hindoos also (as described by Colonel Sleeman in his excellent work, Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official), affords a remarkable parallel to that of the early Greeks. Colonel Sleeman says, "Any Englishman can easily conceive a poet in his highest calenture of the brain, addressing the Ocean as a steed that knows his rider, and patting the crested billow as his flowing mane. But he must come to India to understand how every individual of a whole community of many millions can address a fine river as a living being—a sovereign princess who hears and understands all they say, and exercises a kind of local superintendence over their affairs, without a single temple in which her image is worshipped, or a single priest to profit by the delusion. As in the case of the Ganges, it is the river itself to whom they address themselves, and not to any deity residing in it, or presiding over it—the stream itself is the deity which fills their imaginations, and receives their homage. Compare also the remarks in the same work on the sanctity of Mother Nerbudda; also of the holy personality of the earth. "The land is considered as the MOTHER of the prince or chief who holds it, the great parent from whom he derives all that maintains him, his family, and his establishments. If well-treated, she yields this in abundance to her son; but if he presumes to look upon her with the eye of desire, she ceases to be fruitful ; or the Deity sends down hail or blight to destroy all that she yields. The measuring the surface of the fields, and the frequently inspecting the crops by the chief himself or his immediate agents, were considered by the people in this light— either it should not be done at all, or the duty should be delegated to inferior agents, whose close inspection of the great parent could not be so displeasing to the Deity".


The extensive and multiform personifications, here faintly sketched, pervaded in every direction the mental system of the Greeks, and were identified intimately both with their conception and with their description of phenomena, present as well as past. That which to us is interesting as the mere creation of an exuberant fancy, was to the Greek genuine and venerated reality. Both the earth and the solid heaven (Gea and Uranos) were both conceived and spoken of by him as endowed with appetite, feeling, sex, and most of the various attributes of humanity. Instead of a sun such as we now see, subject to astronomical laws, and forming the center of a system the changes of which we can ascertain and foreknow, he saw the great god Helios, mounting his chariot in the morning in the east, reaching at midday the height of the solid heaven, and arriving in the evening at the western horizon, with horses fatigued and desirous of repose.

Helios, having favorite spots wherein his beautiful cattle grazed, took pleasure in contemplating them during the course of his journey, and was sorely displeased if any man slew or injured them: he had moreover sons and daughters on earth, and as his all-seeing eye penetrated everywhere, he was sometimes in a situation to reveal secrets even to the gods themselves—while on other occasions he was constrained to turn aside in order to avoid contemplating scenes of abomination. To us these now appear puerile, though pleasing fancies, but to an Homeric Greek they seemed perfectly natural and plausible. In his view, the description of the sun, as given in a modern astronomical treatise, would have appeared not merely absurd, but repulsive and impious. Even in later times, when the positive spirit of inquiry had made considerable progress, Anaxagoras and other astronomers incurred the charge of blasphemy for dispersonifying and trying to assign invariable laws to the solar phenomena. Personifying fiction was in this way blended by the Homeric Greeks with their conception of the physical phenomena before them, not simply in the way of poetical ornament, but as a genuine portion of their everyday belief.

It was in this early state of the Grecian mind, stimulating so forcibly the imagination and the feelings, and acting through them upon the belief, that the great body of the myths grew up and obtained circulation. They were, from first to last, personal narratives and adventures; and the persons who predominated as subjects of them were the gods, the heroes, the nymphs, etc., whose names were known and reverenced, and in whom everyone felt interested. To every god and every hero it was consistent with Grecian ideas to ascribe great diversity of human motive and attribute : each indeed has his own peculiar type of character, more or less strictly defined; but in all there was a wide foundation for animated narrative and for romantic incident. The gods and heroes of the land and the tribe belonged, in the conception of a Greek, alike to the present and to the past : he worshipped in their groves and at their festivals; he invoked their protection, and believed in their superintending guardianship, even in his own day : but their more special, intimate, and sympathizing agency was cast back into the unrecorded past. To give suitable utterance to this general sentiment, to furnish body and movement and detail to these divine and heroic pre-existences, which were conceived only in shadowy outline, to lighten up the dreams of what the past must have been, in the minds of those who knew not what it really had been — such was the spontaneous aim and inspiration of productive genius in the community, and such were the purposes which the Grecian myths preeminently accomplished.


The love of antiquities, which Tacitus notices as so prevalent among the Greeks of his day, was one of the earliest, the most durable, and the most widely diffused of the national propensities. But the antiquities of every state were divine and heroic, reproducing the lineaments, but disregarding the measure and limits, of ordinary humanity. The gods formed the starting-point, beyond which no man thought of looking, though some gods were more ancient than others : their progeny, the heroes, many of them sprung from human mothers, constitute an intermediate link between god and man. The ancient epic usually recognizes the presence of a multitude of nameless men, but they are introduced chiefly for the purpose of filling the scene, and of executing the orders, celebrating the valor, and bringing out the personality, of a few divine or heroic characters. It was the glory of bards and storytellers to be able to satisfy those religious and patriotic predispositions of the public, which caused the primary demand for their tales, and which were of a nature eminently inviting and expansive. For Grecian religion was many-sided and many colored; it comprised a great multiplicity of persons, together with much diversity in the types of character; it divinized every vein and attribute of humanity, the lofty as well as the mean—the tender as well as the warlike—the self-devoting and adventurous as well as the laughter-loving and sensual. We shall hereafter reach a time when philosophers protested against such identification of the gods with the more vulgar appetites and enjoyments, believing that nothing except the spiritual attributes of man could properly be transferred to superhuman beings, and drawing their predicates respecting the gods exclusively from what was awful, majestic and terror-striking in human affairs. Such restrictions on the religious fancy were continually on the increase, and the mystic and didactic stamp which marked the last century of paganism in the days of Julian and Libanius, contrasts forcibly with the concrete and vivacious forms, full of vigorous impulse and alive to all the capricious gusts of the human temperament, which people the Homeric Olympus. At present, however, we have only to consider the early, or Homeric and Hesiodic paganism, and its operation in the genesis of the mythical narratives. We cannot doubt that it supplied the most powerful stimulus, and the only one which the times admitted, to the creative faculty of the people; as well from the sociability, the gradations, and the mutual action and reaction of its gods and heroes, as from the amplitude, the variety, and the purely human cast, of its fundamental types.


Though we may thus explain the mythopoeic fertility of the Greeks, I am far from pretending that we can render any sufficient account of the supreme beauty of their chief epic and artistical productions. There is something in the first-rate productions of individual genius which lies beyond the compass of philosophical theory : the special breath of the Muse (to speak the language of ancient Greece) must be present in order to give them being. Even among her votaries, many are called, but few are chosen; and the peculiarities of those few remain as yet her own secret.

We shall not however forget that Grecian language was also an indispensable requisite to the growth and beauty of Grecian myths — its richness, its flexibility and capacity of new combinations, its vocalic abundance and metrical pronunciation: and many even among its proper names, by their analogy to words really significant, gave direct occasion to explanatory or illustrative stories. Etymological myths are found in sensible proportion among the whole number.

To understand properly then the Grecian myths, we must try to identify ourselves with the state of mind of the original mythopoeic age; a process not very easy, since it requires us to adopt a string of poetical fancies not simply as realities, but as the governing realities of the mental system; yet a process which would only reproduce something analogous to our own childhood. The age was one destitute both of recorded history and of positive science, but full of imagination and sentiment and religious impressibility; from these sources sprung that multitude of supposed persons around whom all combinations of sensible phenomena were grouped, and towards whom curiosity, sympathies, and reverence were earnestly directed. The adventures of such persons were the only aliment suited at once both to the appetites and to the comprehension of an early Greek; and the myths which detailed them, while powerfully interesting his emotions, furnished to him at the same time a quasi-history and quasi-philosophy: they filled up the vacuum of the unrecorded past, and explained many of the puzzling incognita of the present. Nor need we wonder that the same plausibility which captivated his imagination and his feelings was sufficient to engender spontaneous belief; or rather, that no question as to truth or falsehood of the narrative suggested itself to his mind. His faith is ready, literal and uninquiring, apart from all thought of discriminating fact from fiction, or of detecting hidden and symbolized meaning; it is enough that what he hears be intrinsically plausible and seductive, and that there be no special cause to provoke doubt. And if indeed there were, the poet overrules such doubts by the holy and all-sufficient authority of the Muse, whose omniscience is the warrant for his recital, as her inspiration is the cause of his success.

The state of mind, and the relation of speaker to hearers, thus depicted, stand clearly marked in the terms and tenor of the ancient epic, if we only put a plain meaning upon what we read. The poet—like the prophet, whom he so much resembles—sings under heavenly guidance, inspired by the goddess to whom he has prayed for her assisting impulse : she puts the word into his mouth and the incidents into his mind : he is a privileged man, chosen as her organ and speaking from her revelations. As the Muse grants the gift of song to whom she will, so she sometimes in her anger snatches it away, and the most consummate human genius is then left silent and helpless. It is true that these expressions, of the Muse inspiring and the poet singing a tale of past times, have passed from the ancient epic to compositions produced under very different circumstances, and have now degenerated into unmeaning forms of speech; but they gained currency originally in their genuine and literal acceptation. If poets had from the beginning written or recited, the predicate of singing would never have been ascribed to them; nor would it have ever become customary to employ the name of the Muse as a die to be stamped on licensed fiction, unless the practice had begun when her agency was invoked and hailed in perfect good faith. Belief, the fruit of deliberate inquiry and a rational scrutiny of evidence, is in such an age unknown : the simple faith of the time slides in unconsciously, when the imagination and feeling are exalted; and inspired authority is at once understood, easily admitted, and implicitly confided in.


The word myth (fabula, story), in its original meaning, signified simply a statement or current narrative, without any connotative implication either of truth or falsehood. Subsequently the meaning of the word (in Latin and English as well as in Greek) changed, and came to carry with it the idea of an old personal narrative, always uncertified, sometimes untrue or avowedly fictitious. And this change was the result of a silent alteration in the mental state of the society, — of a transition on the part of the superior minds (and more or less on the part of all) to a stricter and more elevated canon of credibility, in consequence of familiarity with recorded history, and its essential tests, affirmative as well as negative. Among the original hearers of the myths, all such tests were unknown; they had not yet learned the lesson of critical disbelief; the myth passed unquestioned from the mere fact of its currency, and from its harmony with existing sentiments and preconceptions. The very circumstances which contributed to rob it of literal belief in after-time, strengthened its hold upon the mind of the Homeric man. He looked for wonders and unusual combinations in the past; he expected to hear of gods, heroes and men, moving and operating together upon earth; he pictured to himself the foretime as a theatre in which the gods interfered directly, obviously and frequently, for the protection of their favorites and the punishment of their foes. The rational conception, then only dawning in his mind, of a systematic course of nature was absorbed by this fervent and lively faith. And if he could have been supplied with as perfect and philosophical a history of his own real past time, as we are now enabled to furnish with regard to the last century of England or France, faithfully recording all the successive events, and accounting for them by known positive laws, but introducing no special interventions of Zeus and Apollo — such a history would have appeared to him not merely unholy and unimpressive, but destitute of all plausibility or title to credence. It would have provoked in him the same feeling of incredulous aversion as a description of the sun (to repeat the previous illustration) in a modern book on scientific astronomy.

To us these myths are interesting fictions; to the Homeric and Hesiodic audience they were rerum divinarum et humanarum scientia, an aggregate of religious, physical and historical revelations, rendered more captivating, but not less true and real, by the bright coloring and fantastic shapes in which they were presented. Throughout the whole of "myth-bearing Hellas" they formed the staple of the uninstructed Greek mind, upon which history and philosophy were by so slow degrees superinduced; and they continued to be the aliment of ordinary thought and conversation, even after history and philosophy had partially supplanted the mythical faith among the leading men, and disturbed it more or less in the ideas of all. The men, the women, and the children of the remote domes and villages of Greece, to whom Thucydides, Hippocrates, Aristotle, or Hipparchus were unknown, still continued to dwell upon the local fables which formed their religious and patriotic antiquity. And Pausanias, even in his time, heard everywhere divine or heroic legends yet alive, precisely of the type of the old epic; he found the conceptions of religious and mythical faith, coexistent with those of positive science, and contending against them at more or less of odds, according to the temper of the individual. Now it is the remarkable characteristic of the Homeric age, that no such coexistence or contention had yet begun. The religious and mythical point of view covers, for the most part, all the phenomena of nature; while the conception of invariable sequence exists only in the background, itself personified under the name of the Moerae, or Fates, and produced generally as an exception to the omnipotence of Zeus for all ordinary purposes. Voluntary agents, visible and invisible, impel and govern everything. Moreover this point of view is universal throughout the community, adopted with equal fervor, and carried out with equal consistency, by the loftiest minds and by the lowest. The great man of that day is he who, penetrated like others with the general faith, and never once imagining any other system of nature than the agency of these voluntary Beings, can clothe them in suitable circumstances and details, and exhibit in living body and action those types which his hearers dimly prefigure. Such men were the authors of the Iliad and the Odyssey; embodying in themselves the whole measure of intellectual excellence which their age was capable of feeling: to us, the first of poets —but to their own public, religious teachers, historians, and philosophers besides—inasmuch as all that then represented history and philosophy was derived from those epical effusions and from others homogeneous with them. Herodotus recognizes Homer and Hesiod as the main authors of Grecian belief respecting the names and generations, the attributes and agency, the forms and the worship of the gods.

History, philosophy, etc., properly so called and conforming to our ideas (of which the subsequent Greeks were the first creators, never belonged to more than a comparatively small number of thinking men, though their influence indirectly affected more or less the whole national mind. But when positive science and criticism, and the idea of an invariable sequence of events, came to supplant in the more vigorous intellects the old mythical creed of omnipresent personification, an inevitable scission was produced between the instructed few and the remaining community. The opposition between the scientific and the religious point of view was not slow in manifesting itself: in general language, indeed, both might seem to stand together, but in every particular case the admission of one involved the rejection of the other. According to the theory which then became predominant, the course of nature was held to move invariably on, by powers and attributes of its own, unless the gods chose to interfere and reverse it; but they had the power of interfering as often and to as great an extent as they thought fit. Here the question was at once opened, respecting a great variety of particular phenomena, whether they were to be regarded as natural or miraculous. No constant or discernible test could be suggested to discriminate the two : every man was called upon to settle the doubt for himself, and each settled it according to the extent of his knowledge, the force of his logic, the state of his health, his hopes, his fears, and many other considerations affecting his separate conclusion. In a question thus perpetually arising, and full of practical consequences, instructed minds, like Pericles, Thucydides, and Euripides, tended more and more to the scientific point of view, in cases where the general public were constantly gravitating towards the religious.

The age immediately prior to this unsettled condition of thought is the really mythopoeic age; in which the creative faculties of the society know no other employment, and the mass of the society no other mental demand. The perfect expression of such a period, in its full peculiarity and grandeur, is to be found in the Iliad and Odyssey, — poems of which we cannot determine the exact date, but which seem both to have existed prior to the first Olympiad, 776 BC, our earliest trustworthy mark of Grecian time. For some time after that event, the mythopoeic tendencies continued in vigor (Arktinus, Lesches, Eumelus, and seemingly most of the Hesiodic poems, fall within or shortly after the first century of recorded Olympiads); but from and after this first century, we may trace the operation of causes which gradually enfeebled and narrowed them, altering the point of view from which the myths were looked at. What these causes were, it will be necessary briefly to intimate.


The foremost and most general of all is, the expansive force of Grecian intellect itself, — a quality in which this remarkable people stand distinguished from all their neighbors and contemporaries. Most, if not all nations have had myths, but no nation except the Greeks have imparted to them immortal charm and universal interest; and the same mental capacities, which raised the great men of the poetic age to this exalted level, also pushed forward their successors to outgrow the early faith in which the myths had been generated and accredited.

One great mark, as well as means, of such intellectual expansion, was the habit of attending to, recording, and combining, positive and present facts, both domestic and foreign. In the genuine Grecian epic, the theme was an unknown and aoristic past; but even as early as the Works and Days of Hesiod, the present begins to figure: the man who tills the earth appears in his own solitary nakedness, apart from gods and heroes—bound indeed by serious obligations to the gods, but contending against many difficulties which are not to be removed by simple reliance on their help. The poet denounces his age in the strongest terms as miserable, degraded and profligate, and looks back with reverential envy to the extinct heroic races who fought at Troy and Thebes. Yet bad as the present time is, the Muse condescends to look at it along with him, and to prescribe rules for human life—with the assurance that if a man be industrious, frugal, provident, just and friendly in his dealings, the gods will recompense him with affluence and security. Nor does the Muse disdain, while holding out such promise, to cast herself into the most homely details of present existence and to give advice thoroughly practical and calculating. Men whose minds were full of the heroes of Homer, called Hesiod in contempt the poet of the Helots; and the contrast between the two is certainly a remarkable proof of the tendency of Greek poetry towards the present and the positive.

Other manifestations of the same tendency become visible in the age of Archilochus (680-660 BC). In an age when metrical composition and the living voice are the only means whereby the productive minds of a community make themselves felt, the invention of a new metre, new forms of song and recitation, at diversified accompaniments, constitute an epoch. The iambic, elegiac, choric, and lyric poetry, from Archilochus downwards, all indicate purposes in the poet, and impressibilities of the hearers, very different from those of the ancient epic. In all of them the personal feeling of the poet and the specialties of present time and place, are brought prominently forward, while in the Homeric hexameter the poet is a mere nameless organ of the historical Muse—the hearers are content to learn, believe, and feel, the incidents of a foregone world, and the tale is hardly less suitable to one time and place than to another. The iambic metre (we are told) was first suggested to Archilochus by the bitterness of his own private antipathies; and the mortal wounds inflicted by his lampoons, upon the individuals against whom they were directed, still remain attested, though the verses themselves have perished. It was the metre (according to the well-known judgment of Aristotle) most nearly approaching to common speech, and well suited both to the coarse vein of sentiment, and to the smart and emphatic diction of its inventor. Simonides of Amorgus, the younger contemporary of Archilochus, employed the same metre, with less bitterness, but with an anti-heroic tendency not less decided. His remaining fragments present a mixture of teaching and sarcasm, having a distinct bearing upon actual life, and carrying out the spirit which partially appears in the Hesiodic Works and Days. Of Alkaeus and Sappho, though unfortunately we are compelled to speak of them upon hearsay only, we know enough to satisfy us that their own personal sentiments and sufferings, their relations private or public with the contemporary world, constituted the soul of those short effusions which gave them so much celebrity : and in the few remains of the elegiac poets preserved to us —Kallinus, Mimnermus, Tyrtaeus — the impulse of some present motive or circumstance is no less conspicuous. The same may also be said of Solon, Theognis and Phokylides, who preach, encourage, censure, or complain, but do not recount—and in whom a profound ethical sensibility, unknown to the Homeric poems, manifests itself: the form of poetry (to use the words of Solon himself) is made the substitute for the public speaking of the agora.

Doubtless all these poets made abundant use of the ancient myths, but it was by turning them to present account, in the way of illustration, or flattery, or contrast,—a tendency which we may usually detect even in the compositions of Pindar, in spite of the lofty and heroic strain which they breathe throughout. That narrative or legendary poetry still continued to be composed during the seventh and sixth centuries before the Christian era is not to be questioned; but it exhibited the old epical character without the old epical genius; both the inspiration of the composer and the sympathies of the audience had become more deeply enlisted in the world before them, and disposed to fasten on incidents of their own actual experience. From Solon and Theognis we pass to the abandonment of all metrical restrictions and to the introduction of prose writing,—a fact, the importance of which it is needless to dwell upon—, marking as well the increased familiarity with written records, as the commencement of a separate branch of literature for the intellect, apart from the imagination and emotions wherein the old legends had their exclusive root.


Egypt was first unreservedly opened to the Greeks during the reign of Psammetichus, about BC 660; gradually it became much frequented by them for military or commercial purposes, or for simple curiosity, and enlarged the range of their thoughts and observations, while it also imparted to them that vein of mysticism, which overgrew the primitive simplicity of the Homeric religion, and of which I have spoken in a former chapter. They found in it a long-established civilization, colossal wonders of architecture, and a certain knowledge of astronomy and geometry, elementary indeed, but in advance of their own. Moreover it was a portion of their present world, and it contributed to form in them an interest for noting and describing the actual realities before them. A sensible progress is made in the Greek mind during the two centuries from 700 to 500 BC, in the record and arrangement of historical facts: an historical sense arises in the superior intellects, and some idea of evidence as a discriminating test between fact and fiction. And this progressive tendency was further stimulated by increased communication and by more settled and peaceful social relations between the various members of the Hellenic world, to which may be added material improvements, purchased at the expense of a period of turbulence and revolution, in the internal administration of each separate state. The Olympic, Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian games became frequented by visitors from the most distant parts of Greece : the great periodical festival in the island of Delos brought together the citizens of every Ionic community, with their waves and children, and an ample display of wealth and ornaments.

Numerous and flourishing colonies were founded in Sicily, the south of Italy, the coasts of Epirus and of the Euxine Sea : the Phocaeans explored the whole of the Adriatic, established Massilia, and penetrated even as far as the south of Iberia, with which they carried on a lucrative commerce. The geographical ideas of the Greeks were thus both expanded and rectified : the first preparation of a map, by Anaximander the disciple of Thales, is an epoch in the history of science. We may note the ridicule bestowed by Herodotus both upon the supposed people called Hyperboreans and upon the idea of a circumfluous ocean-stream, as demonstrating the progress of the age in this department of inquiry. And even earlier than Herodotus, Xanthus had noticed the occurrence of fossil marine productions in the interior of Asia Minor, which led him to reflections on the changes of the earth's surface with respect to land and water.

If then we look down the three centuries and a half which elapsed between the commencement of the Olympic era and the age of Herodotus and Thucydides, we shall discern a striking advance in the Greeks, — ethical, social and intellectual. Positive history and chronology has not only been created, but in the case of Thucydides, the qualities necessary to the historiographer, in their application to recent events, have been developed with a degree of perfection never since surpassed. Men’s minds have assumed a gentler as well as a juster cast; and acts come to be criticized with reference to their bearing on the internal happiness of a well-regulated community, as well as upon the standing harmony of fraternal states. While Thucydides treats the habitual and licensed piracy, so coolly alluded to in the Homeric poems, as an obsolete enormity, many of the acts described in the old heroic and Theogonic legends were found not less repugnant to this improved tone of feeling. The battles of the gods with the Giants and Titans, — the castration of Uranus by his son Cronus,— the cruelty, deceit and licentiousness, often supposed both in the gods and heroes, provoked strong disapprobation. And the language of the philosopher Xenophanes, who composed both elegiac and iambic poems for the express purpose of denouncing such tales, is as vehement and unsparing as that of the Christian writers, who, eight centuries afterwards, attacked the whole scheme of paganism.

Nor was it alone as an ethical and social critic that Xenophanes stood distinguished. He was one of a great and eminent triad — Thales and Pythagoras being the others — who, in the sixth century before the Christian era, first opened up those veins of speculative philosophy which occupied afterwards so large a portion of Grecian intellectual energy. Of the material differences between the three I do not here speak; I regard them only in reference to the Homeric and Hesiodic philosophy which preceded them, and from which all three deviated .by a step, perhaps the most remarkable in all the history of philosophy. In the scheme of ideas common to Homer and to the Hesiodic Theogony (as has been already stated), we find nature distributed into a variety of personal agencies, administered according to the free-will of different Beings more or less analogous to man—each of these Beings having his own character, attributes and powers, his own sources of pain and pleasure, and his own especial sympathies or antipathies with human individuals; each being determined to act or forbear, to grant favor or inflict injury in his own department of phenomena, according as men, or perhaps other Beings analogous to himself; might conciliate or offend him. The Gods, properly so called, (those who bore a proper name and received some public or family worship,) were the most commanding and capital members amidst this vast network of agents visible and invisible, spread over the universe. The whole vie of nature was purely religious and subjective, the spontaneous suggestion of the early mind. It proceeded from the instinctive tendencies of the feelings and imagination to transport, to the world without, the familiar type of free-will and conscious personal action : above all, it took deep hold of the emotions, from the widely extended sympathy which it so perpetually called forth between man and nature.

The first attempt to disenthrall the philosophic intellect from this all-personifying religious faith, and to constitute a method of interpreting nature distinct from the spontaneous inspirations of untaught minds, is to be found in Thales, Xenophanes and Pythagoras, in the sixth century before the Christian era. It is in them that we first find the idea of Person tacitly set aside or limited, and an impersonal Nature conceived as the object of study. The divine husband and wife, Oceanus and Tethys, parents of many gods and of the Oceanic nymphs, together with the avenging goddess Styx, are translated into the material substance water, or, as we ought rather to say, the Fluid : and Thales set himself to prove that water was the primitive element, out of which all the different natural substances had been formed. He, as well as Xenophanes and Pythagoras, started the problem of physical philosophy, with its objective character and invariable laws, to be discoverable by a proper and methodical application of the human intellect. The Greek word Physic, denoting nature, and its derivatives physics and physiology, unknown in that large sense to Homer or Hesiod, as well as the word Cosmos, to denote the mundane system, first appears with these philosophers. The elemental analysis of Thales — the one unchangeable cosmic substance, varying only in appearance, but not in reality, as suggested by Xenophanes,—and the geometrical and arithmetical combinations of Pythagoras, — all these were different ways of approaching the explanation of physical phenomena, and each gave rise to a distinct school or succession of philosophers. But they all agreed in departing from the primitive method, and in recognizing determinate properties, invariable sequences, and objective truth, in nature — either independent of willing or designing agents, or serving to these latter at once as an indispensable subject-matter and as a limiting condition. Xenophanes disclaimed openly all knowledge respecting the gods, and pronounced that no man could have any means of ascertaining when he was right and when he was wrong, in affirmations respecting them : while Pythagoras represents in part the scientific tendencies of his age, in part also the spirit of mysticism and of special fraternities for religious and ascetic observance, which became diffused throughout Greece in the sixth century before the Christian era. This was another point which placed him in antipathy with the simple, unconscious and demonstrative faith of the old poets, as well as with the current legends.

If these distinguished men, when they ceased to follow the primitive instinct of tracing the phenomena of nature to personal and designing agents, passed over, not at once to induction and observation, but to a misemployment of abstract words, substituting metaphysical eidola in the place of polytheism, and to an exaggerated application of certain narrow physical theories— we must remember that nothing else could be expected from the scanty stock of facts then accessible, and that the most profound study of the human mind points out such transition as an inevitable law of intellectual progress. At present, we have to compare them only with that state of the Greek minds which they partially superseded, and with which they were in decided opposition. The rudiments of physical science were conceived and developed among superior men; but the religious feeling of the mass was averse to them; and the aversion, though gradually mitigated, never wholly died away. Some of the philosophers were not backward in charging others with irreligion, while the multitude seems to have felt the same sentiment more or less towards all—or towards that postulate of constant sequences, with determinate conditions of occurrence, which scientific study implies, and which they could not reconcile with their belief in the agency of the gods, to whom they were constantly praying for special succor and blessings.


The discrepancy between the scientific and the religious point of view was dealt with differently by different philosophers. Thus Socrates openly admitted it, and assigned to each a distinct and independent province. He distributed phenomena into two classes : one, wherein the connection of antecedent and consequent was invariable and ascertainable by human study, and therefore future results accessible to a well-instructed foresight; the other, and those, too, the most comprehensive and important, which the gods had reserved for themselves and their own unconditional agency, wherein there was no invariable or ascertainable sequence, and where the result could only be foreknown by some omen, prophecy, or other special inspired communication from themselves. Each of these classes was essentially distinct, and required to be looked at and dealt with in a manner radically incompatible with the other. Socrates held it wrong to apply the scientific interpretation to the latter, or the theological interpretation to the former. Physics and astronomy, in his opinion, belonged to the divine class of phenomena, in which human research was insane, fruitless, and impious.

On the other hand, Hippocrates, the contemporary of Socrates, denied the discrepancy, and merged into one those two classes of phenomena, the divine and the scientifically determinable,—which the latter had put asunder. Hippocrates treated all phenomena as at once both divine and scientifically determinable. In discussing certain peculiar bodily disorders found among the Scythians, he observes, “The Scythians themselves ascribe the cause of this to God, and reverence and bow down to such sufferers, each man fearing that he may suffer the like; and I myself think too that these affections, as well as all others, are divine : no one among them is either more divine or more human than another, but all are on the same footing, and all divine; nevertheless each of them has its own physical conditions, and not one occurs without such physical conditions”.

A third distinguished philosopher of the same day, Anaxagoras, allegorizing Zeus and the other personal gods, proclaimed the doctrine of one common pervading Mind, as having first established order and system in the mundane aggregate, which had once been in a state of chaos—and as still manifesting its uninterrupted agency for wise and good purposes. This general doctrine obtained much admiration from Plato and Aristotle; but they at the same time remarked with surprise, that Anaxagoras never made any use at all of his own general doctrine for the explanation of the phenomena of nature,—that he looked for nothing but physical causes and connecting laws,—so that in fact the spirit of his particular researches was not materially different from those of Democritus or Leucippus, whatever might be the difference in their general theories. His investigations in meteorology and astronomy, treating the heavenly bodies as subjects for calculation, have been already noticed as offensive, not only to the general public of Greece, but even to Socrates himself among them : he was tried at Athens, and seems to have escaped condemnation only by voluntary exile.

The three eminent men just named, all essentially different from each other, may be taken as illustrations of the philosophical mind of Greece during the last half of the fifth century BC. Scientific pursuits had acquired a powerful hold, and adjusted themselves in various ways with the prevalent religious feelings of the age. Both Hippocrates and Anaxagoras modified their ideas of the divine agency so as to suit their thirst for scientific research. According to the former, the gods were the really efficient agents in the production of all phenomena,—the mean and indifferent not less than the terrific or tutelary. Being thus alike connected with all phenomena, they were specially associated with none—and the proper task of the inquirer was, to find out those rules and conditions by which (he assumed) their agency was always determined, and according to which it might be foretold. And this led naturally to the proceeding which Plato and Aristotle remark in Anaxagoras,—that the all-governing and Infinite Mind, having been announced in sublime language at the beginning of his treatise, was afterward left out of sight, and never applied to the explanation of particular phenomena, being as much consistent with one modification of nature as with another.

Now such a view of the divine agency could never be reconciled with the religious feelings of the ordinary Grecian believer, even as they stood in the time of Anaxagoras; still less could it have been reconciled with those of the Homeric man, more than three centuries earlier. By him Zeus and Athene were conceived as definite Persons, objects of special reverence, hopes, and fears, and animated with peculiar feelings, sometimes of favor, sometimes of wrath, towards himself or his family or country. They were propitiated by his prayers, and prevailed upon to lend him succor in danger—but offended and disposed to bring evil upon him if he omitted to render thanks or sacrifice. This sense of individual communion with, and dependence upon them was the essence of his faith; and with that faith, the all-pervading Mind proclaimed by Anaxagoras—which had no more concern with one man or one phenomenon than with another,—could never be brought into harmony. Nor could the believer, while ho prayed with sincerity for special blessings or protection from the gods, acquiesce in the doctrine of Hippocrates, that their agency was governed by constant laws and physical conditions.

That radical discord between the mental impulses of science and religion, which manifests itself so decisively during the most cultivated ages of Greece, and which harassed more or less so many of the philosophers, produced its most afflicting result in the condemnation of Socrates by the Athenians. According to the remarkable passage recently cited from Xenophon, it will appear that Socrates agreed with his countrymen in denouncing physical speculations as impious,—that he recognized the religious process of discovery as a peculiar branch, coordinate with the scientific,—and that he laid down a theory, of which the basis was, the confessed divergence of these two processes from the beginning—thereby seemingly satisfying the exigencies of religious hopes and fears on the one hand, and those of reason, in her ardor for ascertaining the invariable laws of phenomena, on the other. We may remark that the theory of this religious and extra-scientific process of discovery was at that time sufficiently complete; for Socrates could point out, that those anomalous phenomena which the gods had reserved for themselves, and into which science was forbidden to pry, were yet accessible to the seekings of the pious man, through oracles, omens, and other exceptional means of communication which divine benevolence vouchsafed to keep open. Considering thus to how great an extent Socrates was identified in feeling with the religious public of Athens, and considering moreover that his performance of open religious duties was assiduous—we might wonder, as Xenophon does wonder, how it could have happened that the Athenian dikasts mistook him at the end of his life for an irreligious man. But we see, by the defense which Xenophon as well as Plato gives for him, that the Athenian public really considered him, in spite of his own disclaimer, as homogeneous with Anaxagoras and the other physical inquirers, because he had applied similar scientific reasonings to moral and social phenomena. They looked upon him with the same displeasure as he himself felt towards the physical philosophers, and we cannot but admit that in this respect they were more unfortunately consistent than he was. It is true that the mode of defense adopted by Socrates contributed much to the verdict found against him, and that he was further weighed down by private offence given to powerful individuals and professions; but all these separate antipathies found their best account in swelling the cry against him as an over-curious skeptic, and an impious innovator.

Now the scission thus produced between the superior minds and the multitude, in consequence of the development of science and the scientific point of view, is a fact of great moment in the history of Greek progress, and forms an important contrast between the age of Homer and Hesiod and that of Thucydides; though in point of fact even the multitude, during this later age, were partially modified by those very scientific views which they regarded with disfavor. And we must keep in view the primitive religious faith, once universal and unobstructed, but subsequently disturbed by the intrusions of science; we must follow the great change, as well in respect to enlarged intelligence as to refinement of social and ethical feeling, among the Greeks, from the Hesiodic times downward, in order to render some account of the altered manner in which the ancient myths came to be dealt with. The myth, the spontaneous growth of a creative and personifying interpretation of nature, had struck root in Grecian associations at a time when the national faith required no support from what we call evidence. They were now submitted, not simply to a feeling, imagining, and believing public, but also to special classes of instructed men, —philosophers, historians, ethical teachers, and to a public partially modified by their ideas as well as improved by a wider practical experience. They were not intended for such an audience; they had ceased to be in complete harmony even with the lower strata of intellect and sentiment,—much more so with the higher. But they were the cherished inheritance of a past time; they were interwoven in a thousand ways with the religious faith, the patriotic respect, and the national worship, of every Grecian community; the general type of the myth was the ancient, familiar, and universal form of Grecian thought, which even the most cultivated men bad imbibed in their childhood from the poets and by which they were to a certain degree unconsciously enslaved. Taken as a whole the myths and acquired prescriptive and ineffaceable possession : to attack, call in question, or repudiate them, was a task painful even to undertake, and far beyond the power of any one to accomplish.

For these reasons the anti-mythic vein of criticism was of no effect as a destroying force, but nevertheless its dissolving decomposing and transforming influence was very considerable. To accommodate the ancient myths to an improved tone of sentiment and a newly created canon of credibility, was a function which even the wisest Greeks did not disdain, and which occupied no small proportion of the whole intellectual activity of the nation.

The myths were looked at from a point of view completely foreign to the reverential curiosity and literal imaginative faith of the Homeric man; they were broken up and recast in order to force them into new molds such as their authors had never conceived. We may distinguish four distinct classes of minds, in the literary age now under examination, as having taken them in hand — the poets, the logographers, the philosophers, and the historians.


With the poets and logographers, the mythical persons are real predecessors, and the mythical world an antecedent fact; but it is divine and heroic reality, not human; the present is only half-brother of the past (to borrow an illustration from Pindar in his allusion to gods and men), remotely and generically, but not closely and specifically, analogous to it. As a general habit, the old feelings and the old unconscious faith, apart from all proof or evidence, still remain in their minds; but recent feelings have grown up which compel them to omit, to alter, sometimes even to reject and condemn, particular narratives.

Pindar repudiates some stories and transforms others, because they are inconsistent with his conceptions of the gods. Thus he formally protests against the tale that Pelops had been killed and served up at table by his father, for the immortal gods to eat; he shrinks from the idea of imputing to them so horrid an appetite; he pronounces the tale to have been originally fabricated by a slanderous neighbor. Nor can he bring himself to recount the quarrels between different gods. The amours of Zeus and Apollo are no way displeasing to him; but he occasionally suppresses some of the simple details of the old myth, as deficient in dignity : thus, according to the Hesiodic narrative, Apollo was informed by a raven of the infidelity of the nymph Koronis : but the mention of the raven did not appear to Pindar consistent with the majesty of the god, and he therefore wraps up the mode of detection in vague and mysterious language. He feels considerable repugnance to the character of Odysseus, and intimates more than once that Homer has unduly exalted him, by force of poetical artifice. With the character of the Eakid Ajax, on the other hand, he has the deepest sympathy, as well as with his untimely and inglorious death, occasioned by the undeserved preference of a less worthy rival. He appeals for his authority usually to the Muse, but sometimes to “ancient sayings of men”, accompanied with a general allusion to story-tellers and bards,—admitting, however, that these stories present great discrepancy, and sometimes that they are false. Yet the marvelous and the supernatural afford no ground whatever for rejecting a story. Pindar makes an express declaration to this effect in reference to the romantic adventures of Perseus and the Gorgon's head. He treats even those mythical characters, which conflict the most palpably with positive experience, as connected by a real genealogical thread with the world before him. Not merely the heroes of Troy and Thebes, and the demigod seamen of Jason and the ship Argo, but also the Centaur Cheiron, the hundred-headed Typhos, the giant Alkyoneus, Antaeus, Bellorophon and Pegasus, the Chimaera, the Amazons and the Hyperboreans—all appear painted on the same canvas, and touched with the same colors, as the men of the recent and recorded past, Phalaris and Croesus; only they are thrown back to a greater distance in the perspective. The heroic ancestors of those great Eginetan, Thessalian, Theban, Argeian, etc. families, whose present members the poet celebrates for their agonistic victories, sympathize with the exploits and second the efforts of their descendants : the inestimable value of a privileged breed and of the stamp of nature is powerfully contrasted with the impotence of unassisted teaching and practice. The power and skill of the Argeian Theaeus and his relatives as wrestlers, are ascribed partly to the fact that their ancestors Pamphaes in aforetime had hospitably entertained the Tyndarids Castor and Pollux. Perhaps however the strongest proof of the sincerity of Pindar's mythical faith is afforded when he notices a guilty incident with shame and repugnance, but with an unwilling confession of its truth, as in the case of the fratricide committed on Phokus by his brothers Peleus and Telamon.


Aeschylus and Sophocles exhibit the same spontaneous and uninquiring faith as Pindar in the legendary antiquities of Greece, taken as a whole; but they allow themselves greater license as to the details. It was indispensable to the success of their compositions that they should recast and group anew the legendary events, preserving the names and general understood relation of those characters whom they introduced. The demand for novelty of combination increased with the multiplication of tragic spectacles at Athens : moreover the feelings of the Athenians, ethical as well as political, had become too critical to tolerate the literal reproduction of many among the ancient stories.

Both of them exalted rather than lowered the dignity of the mythical world, as something divine and heroic rather than human. The Prometheus of Aeschylus is a far more exalted conception than his keen-witted namesake in Hesiod, and the more homely details of the ancient Thebais and Edipodia were in like manner modified by Sophocles. The religious agencies of the old epic are constantly kept prominent, and the paternal curse, —the wrath of deceased persons against those from whom they have sustained wrong,—the judgments of the Erinnys against guilty or foredoomed persons, sometimes inflicted directly, sometimes brought about through dementation of the sufferer himself (like the Homeric Atê),—are frequent in their tragedies.

Aeschylus in two of his remaining pieces brings forward the gods as the chief personages, and far from sharing the objection of Pindar to dwell upon dissensions of the gods, he introduces Prometheus and Zeus in the one, Apollo and the Eumenides in the other, in marked opposition. The dialogue, first superinduced by him upon the primitive Chorus, gradually became the most important portion of the drama, and is more elaborated in Sophocles than in Aeschylus. Even in Sophocles, however, it still generally retains its ideal majesty as contrasted with the rhetorical and forensic tone which afterwards crept in; it grows out of the piece, and addresses itself to the emotions more than to the reason of the audience. Nevertheless, the effect of Athenian political discussion and democratic feeling is visible in both these dramatists. The idea of rights and legitimate privileges as opposed to usurping force, is applied by Aeschylus even to the society of the gods : the Eumenides accuse Apollo of having, with the insolence of youthful ambition, "ridden down" their old prerogatives — while the Titan Prometheus, the champion of suffering humanity against the unfriendly dispositions of Zeus, ventures to depict the latter as a recent usurper reigning only by his superior strength, exalted by one successful revolution, and destined at some future time to be overthrown by another,—a fate which cannot be averted except through warnings communicable only by Prometheus himself.

It is commonly understood that Aeschylus disapproved of the march of democracy at Athens during his later years, and that the Eumenides is intended as an indirect manifestation in favor of the senate of Areiopagus. Without inquiring at present whether such a special purpose can be distinctly made out, we may plainly see that the poet introduces, into the relations of the gods with each other, a feeling of political justice, arising out of the times in which he lived and the debates of which he was a witness. But though Aeschylus incurred reproaches of impiety from Plato, and seemingly also from the Athenian public, for particular speeches and incidents in his tragedies, and though he does not adhere to the received vein of religious tradition with the same strictness as Sophocles — yet the ascendency and interference of the gods is never out of sight, and the solemnity with which they are represented, set off by a bold, figurative, and elliptical style of expression (often but imperfectly intelligible to modern readers), reaches its maximum in his tragedies. As he throws round the gods a kind of airy grandeur, so neither do his men or heroes appear like tenants of the common earth : the mythical world from which he borrows his characters is peopled only with the immediate seed of the gods, in close contact with Zeus, in whom the divine blood has not yet had time to degenerate en his individuals are taken, not from the iron race whom Hesiod acknowledges with shame as his contemporaries, but from the extinct heroic race which had fought at Troy and Thebes. It is to them that his conceptions aspire, and he is even chargeable with frequent straining, beyond the limits of poetical taste, to realize his picture. If he does not consistently succeed in it, the reason is because consistency in such a matter is unattainable, since, after all, the analogies of common humanity, the only materials which the most creative imagination has to work upon, obtrude themselves involuntarily, and the lineaments of the man are thus seen even under a dress which promises superhuman proportions.

Sophocles, the most illustrious ornament of Grecian tragedy, dwells upon the same heroic characters, and maintains their grandeur, on the whole, with little abatement, combining with it a far better dramatic structure, and a wider appeal to human sympathies. Even in Sophocles, however, we find indications that an altered ethical feeling and a more predominant sense of artistic perfection are allowed to modify the harsher religious agencies of the old epic; occasional misplaced effusions of rhetoric, as well as of didactic prolixity, may also be detected. It is Aeschylus, not Sophocles, who forms the marked antithesis to Euripides; it is Aeschylus, not Sophocles, to whom Aristophanes awards the prize of tragedy, as the poet who assigns most perfectly to the heroes of the past those weighty words, imposing equipments, simplicity of great deeds with little talk, and masculine energy superior to the corruptions of Aphrodite, which beseem the comrades of Agamemnon and Adrastus.


How deeply this feeling, of the heroic character of the mythical world, possessed the Athenian mind, may be judged by the bitter criticisms made on Euripides, whose compositions were pervaded, partly by ideas of physical philosophy learnt under Anaxagoras, partly by the altered tone of education and the wide diffusion of practical eloquence, forensic as well as political, at Athens. While Aristophanes assails Euripides as the representative of this "young Athens", with the utmost keenness of sarcasm, — other critics also concur in designating him as having vulgarized the mythical heroes, and transformed them into mere characters of common life, —loquacious, subtle, and savoring of the market-place. In some of his plays, skeptical expressions and sentiments were introduced, derived from his philosophical studies, sometimes confounding two or three distinct gods into one, sometimes translating the personal Zeus into a substantial Ether with determinate attributes. He put into the mouths of some of his unprincipled dramatic characters, apologetic speeches which were denounced as ostentatious sophistry, and as setting out a triumphant case for the criminal. His thoughts, his words, and the rhythm of his choric songs, were all accused of being deficient in dignity and elevation. The mean attire and miserable attitude in which he exhibited Aeneas, Telephus, Thyestes, Ino, and other heroic characters, were unmercifully derided, though it seems that their position and circumstances had always been painfully melancholy; but the effeminate pathos which Euripides brought so nakedly into the foreground, was accounted unworthy of the majesty of a legendary hero. And he incurred still greater obloquy on another point, on which he is allowed even by his enemies to have only reproduced in substance the preexisting tales, —the illicit and fatal passion depicted in several of his female characters, such as Phaedra and Sthenoboea. His opponents admitted that these stories were true, but contended that they ought to be kept back and not produced upon the stage,—a proof both of the continued mythical faith and of the more sensitive ethical criticism of his age. The marriage of the six daughters to the six sons of Eolus is of Homeric origin, and stands now, though briefly stated, in the Odyssey : but the incestuous passion of Macareus and Canace, embodied by Euripides in the lost tragedy called Eolus, drew upon him severe censure. Moreover, he often disconnected the horrors of the old legends with those religious agencies by which they had been originally forced on, prefacing them by motives of a more refined character, which carried no sense of awful compulsion : thus the considerations by which the Euripidean Alkmaeon was reduced to the necessity of killing his mother appeared to Aristotle ridiculous. After the time of this great poet, his successors seem to have followed him in breathing into their characters the spirit of common life, but the names and plot were still borrowed from the stricken mythical families of Tantalus, Cadmus, etc.: and the heroic exaltation of all the individual personages introduced, as contrasted with the purely human character of the Chorus, is still numbered by Aristotle among the essential points of the theory of tragedy.


The tendency then of Athenian tragedy—powerfully manifested in Aeschylus, and never wholly lost—was to uphold an unquestioning faith and a reverential estimate of the general mythical world and its personages, but to treat the particular narratives rather as matter for the emotions than as recitals of actual fact. The logographers worked along with them to the first of these two ends, but not to the second. Their grand object was, to cast the myths into a continuous readable series, and they were in consequence compelled to make selection between inconsistent or contradictory narratives; to reject some narratives as false, and to receive others as true. But their preference was determined more by their sentiments as to what was appropriate, than by any pretended historical test. Pherekydes, Akusilaus and Hellanikus did not seek to banish miraculous or fantastic incidents from the mythical world; they regarded it as peopled with loftier beings, and expected to find in it phenomena not paralleled in their own degenerate days. They reproduced the fables as they found them in the poets, rejecting little except the discrepancies, and producing ultimately what they believed to be not only a continuous but an exact and trustworthy history of the past—wherein they carry indeed their precision to such a length, that Hellanicus gives the year, and even the day of the capture of Troy.

Hecataeus of Miletus (500 BC), anterior to Pherekydes and Hellanikus, is the earliest writer in whom we can detect any disposition to disallow the prerogative and specialty of the myths, and to soften down their characteristic prodigies, some of which however still find favor in his eyes, as in the case of the speaking ram who carried Phryxus over the Hellespont. He pronounced the Grecian fables to be “many and ridiculous”; whether from their discrepancies or from their intrinsic improbabilities we do not know: and we owe to him the first attempt to force them within the limits of historical credibility; as where he transforms the three-headed Cerberus, the dog of Hades, into a serpent inhabiting a cavern on Cape Taenarus—and Geryon of Erytheia into a king of Epirus rich in herds of oxen. Hecataeus traced the genealogy of himself and the gens to which he belonged through a line of fifteen progenitors up to an initial god,— the clearest proof both of his profound faith in the reality of the mythical world, and of his religious attachment to it as the point of junction between the human and the divine personality.


We have next to consider the historians, especially Herodotus and Thucydides. Like Hecataeus, Thucydides belonged to a gens which traced its descent from Ajax, and through Ajax to Eakus and Zeus. Herodotus modestly implies that he himself had no such privilege to boast of. Their curiosity respecting the past had no other materials to work upon except the myths; but these they found already cast by the logographers into a continuous series, and presented as an aggregate of antecedent history, chronologically deduced from the times of the gods. In common with the body of the Greeks, both Herodotus and Thucydides had imbibed that complete and unsuspecting belief in the general reality of mythical antiquity, which was interwoven with the religion and the patriotism, and all the public demonstrations of the Hellenic world. To acquaint themselves with the genuine details of this foretime, was an inquiry highly interesting to them : but the increased positive tendencies of their age, as well as their own habits of personal investigation, had created in them an historical sense in regard to the past as well as to the present. Having acquired a habit of appreciating the intrinsic tests of historical credibility and probability, they found the particular narratives of the poets and logographers, inadmissible as a whole even in the eyes of Hecataeus, still more at variance with their stricter canons of criticism. And we thus observe in them the constant struggle, as well as the resulting compromise, between these two opposite tendencies; on one hand a firm belief in the reality of the mythical world, on the other hand an inability to accept the details which their only witnesses, the poets and logographers, told them respecting it.

Each of them however performed the process in his own way Herodotus is a man of deep and anxious religious feeling; he often recognizes the special judgments of the gods as determining historical events : his piety is also partly tinged with that mystical vein which the last two centuries had gradually infused into the religion of the Greeks—for he is apprehensive of giving offence to the gods by reciting publicly what he has heard respecting them; he frequently stops short in his narrative and intimates that there is a sacred legend, but that he will not tell it: in other cases, where he feels compelled to speak out, he entreats forgiveness for doing so from the gods and heroes. Sometimes he will not even mention the name of a god, though he generally thinks himself authorized to do so, the names being matter of public notoriety. Such pious reserve, which the open-hearted Herodotus avowedly proclaims as chaining up his tongue, affords a striking contrast with the plain-spoken and unsuspecting tone of the ancient epic, as well as of the popular legends, wherein the gods and their proceedings were the familiar and interesting subjects of common talk as well as of common sympathy, without ceasing to inspire both fear and reverence.

Herodotus expressly distinguishes, in the comparison of Polycrates with Minos, the human race to which the former belonged, from the divine or heroic race which comprised the latter. But he has a firm belief in the authentic personality and parentage of all the names in the myths, divine, heroic and human, as well as in the trustworthiness of their chronology computed by generations. He counts back 1600 years from his own day to that of Semele, mother of Dionysus; 900 years to Heracles, and 800 years to Penelope, the Trojan war being a little earlier in date. Indeed even the longest of these periods must have seemed to him comparatively short, seeing that he apparently accepts the prodigious series of years which the Egyptians professed to draw from a recorded chronology--17,000 years from their god Heracles, and 15,000 years from their god Osiris or Dionysus, down to their king Amasis (550 BC). So much was his imagination familiarized with these long chronological computations barren of events, that he treats Homer and Hesiod as "men of yesterday", though separated from his own age by an interval which he reckons as four hundred years.

Herodotus had been profoundly impressed with what he saw and heard in Egypt. The wonderful monuments, the evident antiquity, and the peculiar civilization of that country, acquired such preponderance in his mind over his own native legends, that he is disposed to trace even the oldest religious names or institutions of Greece to Egyptian or Phoenician original, setting aside in favor of this hypothesis the Grecian legends of Dionysus and Pan. The oldest Grecian mythical genealogies are thus made ultimately to lose themselves in Egyptian or Phoenician antiquity, and in the full extent of these genealogies Herodotus firmly believes. It does not seem that any doubt had ever crossed his mind as to the real personality of those who were named or described in the popular myths : all of them have once had reality, either as men, as heroes, or as gods. The eponyms of cities, demos and tribes, are all comprehended in this affirmative category; the supposition of fictitious personages being apparently never entertained. Deucalion, Helen, Dorus,—Ion, with his four sons, the eponyms of the old Athenian tribes,—the autochthonous Titakus and Dekelus,—Danaus, Lynkeus, Perseus, Amphitryon, Alkmena, and Heracles,—Tathybius, the heroic progenitor of the privileged heraldic gens at Sparta,—the Tyndarids and Helena,—Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Orestes,—Nester and his son Peisistratus,—Asopus, Thebe, and Egina,—Inachus and Io, Aetes and Medea,—Melanippus, Adrastus, and Amphiaraus, as well as Jason and the Argo,—all these are occupants of the real past time, and predecessors of himself and his contemporaries. In the veins of the Lacedaemonian kings flowed the blood both of Cadmus and of Danaus, their splendid pedigree being traceable to both of these great mythical names : Herodotus carries the lineage up through Heracles first to Perseus and Dame, then through Danae to Akrisius and the Egyptian Danaus; but he drops the paternal lineage when he comes to Perseus (inasmuch as Perseus is the son of Zeus by Danae, without any reputed human father, such as Amphitryon was to Heracles), and then follow the higher members of the series through Danae alone. He also pursues the same regal genealogy, through the mother of Eurysthenes and Procles, up to Polynikes, (Edipus, Laius, Labdakus, Polyarus and Kadmus; and he assigns various ancient inscriptions which he saw in the temple of the Ismenian Apollo at Thebes, to the ages of Laius and Edipus. Moreover, the sieges of Thebes and Troy, —the Argonautic expedition,—the invasion of Attica by the Amazons,—the protection of the Herakleids, and the defeat and death of Eurystheus, by the Athenians,—the death of Mekisteus and Tydeus before Thebes by the hands of Melanippus, and the touching calamities of Adrastus and Amphiaraus connected with the same enterprise,—the sailing of Castor and Pollux in the Argo,—the abductions of Io, Europa, Medea and Helena,—the emigration of Cadmus in quest of Europa, and his coming to Boeotia, as well as the attack of the Greeks upon Troy to recover Helen,—all these events seem to him portions of past history, not less unquestionably certain, though more clouded over by distance and misrepresentation, than the battles of Salamis and Mycale.

But though Herodotus is thus easy of faith in regard both to the persons and to the general facts of Grecian myths, yet when he comes to discuss particular facts taken separately, we find him applying to them stricter tests of historical credibility, and often disposed to reject as well the miraculous as the extravagant. Thus even with respect to Heracles, he censures the levity of the Greeks in ascribing to him absurd and incredible exploits; he tries their assertion by the philosophical standard of nature, or of determinate powers and conditions governing the course of events. “How is it consonant to nature (he asks), that Heracles, being, as he was, according to the statement of the Greeks, a man, should kill many thousand persons? I pray that indulgence may be shown to me both by gods and heroes for saying so much as this”. The religious feelings of Herodotus here told him that he was trenching upon the utmost limits of admissible skepticism.

Another striking instance of the disposition of Herodotus to rationalize the miraculous narratives of the current myths, is to be found in his account of the oracle of Dodona and its alleged Egyptian origin. Here, if in any case, a miracle was not only in full keeping, but apparently indispensable to satisfy the exigencies of the religious sentiment; anything less than a miracle would have appeared tame and unimpressive to the visitors of so revered a spot, much more to the residents themselves. Accordingly, Herodotus heard, both from the three priestesses and from the Dodonaeans generally, that two black doves had started at the same time from Thebes in Egypt : one of them went to Libya, where it directed the Libyans to establish the oracle of Zeus Ammon; the other came to the grove of Dodona, and perched on one of the venerable oaks, proclaiming with a human voice that an oracle of Zeus must be founded on that very spot. The injunction of the speaking dove was respectfully obeyed.

Such was the tale related and believed at Dodona. But Herodotus had also heard, from the priests at Thebes in Egypt, a different tale, ascribing the origin of all the prophetic establishments, in Greece as well as in Libya, to two sacerdotal women, who had been carried away from Thebes by some Phoenician merchants and sold, the one in Greece, the other in Libya. The Theban priests boldly assured Herodotus that much pains had been taken to discover what had become of these women so exported, and that the fact of their having been taken to Greece and Libya had been accordingly verified.


The historian of Halicarnassus cannot for a moment think of admitting the miracle which harmonized so well with the feelings of the priestesses and the Dodonaeans. “How (he asks) could a dove speak with human voice?” But the narrative of the priests at Thebes, though its prodigious improbability hardly requires to be stated, yet involved no positive departure from the laws of nature and possibility, and therefore Herodotus makes no difficulty in accepting it. The curious circumstance is, that he turns the native Dodonaean legend into a figurative representation, or rather a misrepresentation, of the supposed true story told by the Theban priests. According to his interpretation, the woman who came from Thebes to Dodona was called a dove, and affirmed to utter sounds like a bird, because she was non-Hellenic and spoke a foreign tongue : when she learned to speak the language of the country, it was then said that the dove spoke with a human voice. And the dove was moreover called black, because of the woman’s Egyptian color.

That Herodotus should thus bluntly reject a miracle, recounted to him by the prophetic women themselves as the prime circumstance in the origins of this holy place, is a proof of the hold which habits of dealing with historical evidence had acquired over his mind; and the awkwardness of his explanatory mediation between the dove and the woman, marks not less his anxiety, while discarding the legend, to let it softly down into a story quasi-historical and not intrinsically incredible.

We may observe another example of the unconscious tendency of Herodotus to eliminate from the myths the idea of special aid from the gods, in his remarks upon Melampus. He designates Melampus “as a clever man, who had acquired for himself the art of prophecy”; and had procured through Cadmus much information about the religious rites and customs of Egypt, many of which he introduced into Greece—especially the name, the sacrifices, and the phallic processions of Dionysus : he adds, “that Melampus himself did not accurately comprehend or bring out the whole doctrine, but wise men who came after him made the necessary additions”. Though the name of Melampus is here maintained, the character described is something in the vein of Pythagoras—totally different from the great seer and leech of the old epic myths—the founder of the gifted family of the Amythaonids, and the grandfather of Amphiaraus. But that which is most of all at variance with the genuine legendary spirit, is the opinion expressed by Herodotus (and delivered with some emphasis as his own), that Melampus “was a clever man, who had acquired for himself prophetic powers”. Such a supposition would have appeared inadmissible to Homer or Hesiod, or indeed to Solon, in the preceding century, in whose view even inferior arts come from the gods, while Zeus or Apollo bestows the power of prophesying. The intimation of such an opinion by Herodotus, himself a thoroughly pious man, marks the sensibly diminished omnipresence of the gods, and the increasing tendency to look for the explanation of phenomena among more visible and determinate agencies.

We may make a similar remark on the dictum of the historian respecting the narrow defile of Tempe, forming the embouchure of the Peneus and the efflux of all the waters from the Thessalian basin. The Thessalians alleged that this whole basin of Thessaly had once been a lake, but that Poseidon had split the chain of mountains and opened the efflux; upon which primitive belief, thoroughly conformable to the genius of Homer and Hesiod, Herodotus comments as follows: “The Thessalian statement is reasonable. For whoever thinks that Poseidon shakes the earth, and that the rifts of an earthquake are the work of that god, will, on seeing the defile in question, say that Poseidon has caused it. For the rift of the mountains is, as appeared to me (when I saw it), the work of an earthquake”. Herodotus admits the reference to Poseidon, when pointed out to him, but it stands only in the background : what is present to his mind is the phenomenon of the earthquake, not as a special act, but as part of a system of habitual operations.


Herodotus adopts the Egyptian version of the legend of Troy, founded on that capital variation which seems to have originated with Stesichorus, and according to which Helen never left Sparta at all —her eidolon had been taken to Troy in her place. Upon this basis a new story had been framed, midway between Homer and Stesichorus, representing Paris to have really carried off Helen from Sparta, but to have been driven by storms to Egypt, where she remained during the whole siege of Troy, having been detained by Proteus, the king of the country, until Menelaus came to reclaim her after his triumph. The Egyptian priests, with their usual boldness of assertion, professed to have heard the whole story from Menelaus himself— the Greeks had besieged Troy, in the full persuasion that Helen and the stolen treasures were within the walls, nor would they ever believe the repeated denials of the Trojans as to the fact of her presence. In intimating his preference for the Egyptian narrative, Herodotus betrays at once his perfect and unsuspecting confidence that he is dealing with genuine matter of history, and his entire distrust of the epic poets, even including Homer, upon whose authority that supposed history rested. His reason for rejecting the Homeric version is that it teems with historical improbabilities. If Helen had been really in Troy (he says), Priam and the Trojans would never have been so insane as to retain her to their own utter ruin: but it was the divine judgment which drove them into the miserable alternative of neither being able to surrender Helen, nor to satisfy the Greeks of the real fact that they had never had possession of her—in order that mankind might plainly read, in the utter destruction of Troy, the great punishments with which the gods visit great misdeeds. Homer (Herodotus thinks) had heard this story, but designedly departed from it, because it was not so suitable a subject for epic poetry.

Enough has been said to show how wide is the difference between Herodotus and the logographers with their literal transcript of the ancient legends. Though he agrees with them in admitting the full series of persons and generations, he tries the circumstances narrated by a new standard. Scruples have arisen in his mind respecting violations of the laws of nature : the poets are unworthy of trust, and their narratives must be brought into conformity with historical and ethical conditions, before they can be admitted as truth. To accomplish this conformity, Herodotus is willing to mutilate the old legend in one of its most vital points: he sacrifices the personal presence of Helena in Troy, which ran through every one of the ancient epic poems belonging to the Trojan cycle, and is indeed, under the gods, the great and present moving force throughout.

Thucydides places himself generally in the same point of view as Herodotus with regard to mythical antiquity, yet with some considerable differences. Though manifesting no belief in present miracles or prodigies, he seems to accept without reserve the preexistent reality of all the persons mentioned in the myths, and of the long series of generations extending back through so many supposed centuries : in this category, too, are included the eponymous personages, Hellen, Kekrops, Eumolpus, Pandion, Amphilochus the son of Amphiaraus, and Akarnan. But on the other hand, we find no trace of that distinction between a human and an heroic ante-human race, which Herodotus still admitted,—nor any respect for Egyptian legends. Thucydides, regarding the personages of the myths as men of the same breed and stature with his own contemporaries, not only tests the acts imputed to them by the same limits of credibility, but presumes in them the same political views and feelings as he was accustomed to trace in the proceedings of Peisistratus or Pericles. He treats the Trojan war as a great political enterprise, undertaken by all Greece; brought into combination through the imposing power of Agamemnon, not (according to the legendary narrative) through the influence of the oath exacted by Tyndareus. Then he explains how the predecessors of Agamemnon arrived at so vast a dominion —beginning with Pelops, who came over (as he says) from Asia with great wealth among the poor Peloponnesians, and by means of this wealth so aggrandized himself, though a foreigner, as to become the eponym of the peninsula. Next followed his son Atreus, who acquired after the death of Eurystheus the dominion of Mycenae, which had before been possessed by the descendants of Perseus : here the old legendary tale, which described Atreus as having been banished by his father Pelops in consequence of the murder of his elder brother Chrysippus, is invested with a political bearing, as explaining the reason why Atreus retired to Mycenae. Another legendary tale—the defeat and death of Eurystheus by the fugitive Heracleides in Attica, so celebrated in Attic tragedy as having given occasion to the generous protecting intervention of Athens—is also introduced as furnishing the cause why Atreus succeeded to the deceased Eurystheus: “for Atreus, the maternal uncle of Eurystheus, had been entrusted by the latter with his government during the expedition into Attica, and had effectually courted the people, who were moreover in great fear of being attacked by the Heracleides”. Thus the Pelopids acquired the supremacy in Peloponnesus, and Agamemnon was enabled to get together his 1200 ships and 100,000 men for the expedition against Troy. Considering that contingents were furnished from every portion of Greece, Thucydides regards this as a small number, treating the Homeric catalogue as an authentic muster-roll, perhaps rather exaggerated than otherwise. He then proceeds to tell us why the armament was not larger : many more men could have been furnished, but there was not sufficient money to purchase provisions for their subsistence; hence they were compelled, after landing and gaining a victory, to fortify their camp, to divide their army, and to send away one portion for the purpose of cultivating the Chersonese, and another portion to sack the adjacent towns. This was the grand reason why the siege lasted so long as ten years. For if it had been possible to keep the whole army together, and to act with an undivided force, Troy would have been taken both earlier and at smaller cost.

Such is the general sketch of the war of Troy, as given by Thucydides. So different is it from the genuine epical narrative, that we seem hardly to be reading a description of the same event; still less should we imagine that the event was known, to him as well as to us, only through the epic poets themselves. The men, the numbers, and the duration of the siege, do indeed remain the same; but the east and juncture of events, the determining forces, and the characteristic features, are altogether heterogeneous. But, like Herodotus, and still more than Herodotus, Thucydides was under the pressure of two conflicting impulses—he shared the general faith in the mythical antiquity, but at the same time he could not believe in any facts which contradicted the laws of historical credibility or probability. He was thus under the necessity of torturing the matter of the old myths into conformity with the subjective exigencies of his own mind: he left out, altered, recombined, and supplied new connecting principles and supposed purposes, until the story became such as no one could have any positive reason for calling in question : though it lost the impressive mixture of religion, romance, and individual adventure, which constituted its original charm, it acquired a smoothness and plausibility, and a poetical ensemble, which the critics were satisfied to accept as historical truth. And historical truth it would doubtless have been, if any independent evidence could have been found to sustain it. Had Thucydides been able to produce such new testimony, we should have been pleased to satisfy ourselves that the war of Troy, as he recounted it, was the real event; of which the war of Troy, as sung by the epic poets, was a misreported, exaggerated, and ornamented recital. But in this case the poets are the only real witnesses, and the narrative of Thucydides is a mere extract and distillation from their incredibilities.

A few other instances may be mentioned to illustrate the views of Thucydides respecting various mythical incidents. 1. He treats the residence of the Homeric Phaeakians at Corcyra as an undisputed fact, and employs it partly to explain the efficiency of the Corcyraean navy in times preceding the Peloponnesian war. He notices, with equal confidence, the story of Tereus and Prokne, daughter of Pandion, and the murder of the child Itys by Prokne his mother, and Philomela; and he produces this ancient myth with especial reference to the alliance between the Athenians and Teres, king of the Odrysian Thracians, during the time of the Peloponnesian war, intimating that the Odrysian Teres was neither of the same family nor of the same country as Tereus the husband of Prokne. The conduct of Pandion, in giving his daughter Prokne in marriage to Tereus, is in his view dictated by political motives and interests. 3. He mentions the Strait of Messina as the place through which Odysseus is said to have sailed. 4. The Cyclopes and the Laestrygones (he says) were the most ancient reported inhabitants of Sicily; but he cannot tell to what race they belonged, nor whence they came. 5. Italy derived its name from Italus, king of the Sikels. 6. Eryx and Egesto in Sicily were founded by fugitive Trojans after the capture of Troy; also Skione, in the Thracian peninsula of Pallene, by Greeks from the Achaean town of Pellene, stopping thither in their return from the siege of Troy: the Amphilochian Argos in the Gulf of Ambrakia was in like manner founded by Amphilochus son of Amphiaraus, in his return from the same enterprise. The remorse and mental derangement of the matricidal Alkmaeon, son of Amphiarus, is also mentioned by Thucydides, as well as the settlement of his son Akarnan in the country called after him Akarnania.

Such are the special allusions made by this illustrious author in the course of his history to mythical events. From the tenor of his language we may see that he accounted all that could be known about them to be uncertain and unsatisfactory; but he has it much at heart to show, that even the greatest were inferior in magnitude and importance to the Peloponnesian war. In this respect his opinion seems to have been at variance with that which was popular among his contemporaries.


To touch a little upon the later historians by whom these myths were handled, we find that Anaximenes of Lampsacus composed a consecutive history of events, beginning from the Theogony down to the battle of Mantineia. But Ephorus professed to omit all the mythical narratives which are referred to times anterior to the return of the Herakleids, (such restriction would of course have banished the siege of Troy,) and even reproved those who introduced myths into historical writing; adding, that everywhere truth was the object to be aimed at. Yet in practice he seems often to have departed from his own rule. Theopompus, on the other hand, openly proclaimed that he could narrate fables in his history better than Herodotus, or Ktesias, or Hellanicus. The fragments which remain to us, exhibit some proof that this promise was performed as to quantity; though as to his style of narration, the judgment of Dionysius is unfavorable. Xenophon ennobled his favorite amusement of the chase by numerous examples chosen from the heroic world, tracing their portraits with all the simplicity of an undiminished faith. Callisthenes, like Ephorus, professed to omit all myths which referred to a time anterior to the return of the Herakleids; yet we know that he devoted a separate book or portion of his history to the Trojan war. Philistus introduced some myths in the earlier portions of his Sicilian history; but Timaeus was distinguished above all others for the copious and indiscriminate way in which he collected and repeated such legends. Some of these writers employed their ingenuity in transforming the mythical circumstances into plausible matter of history : Ephorus, in particular, converted the serpent Pythel, slain by Apollo, into a tyrannical king.

But the author who pushed this transmutation of legend into history to the greatest length, was the Messenian Euemerus, contemporary of Cassander of Macedon. He melted down in this way the divine persons and legends, as well as the heroic — representing both gods and heroes as having been mere earthborn men, though superior to the ordinary level in respect of force and capacity, and deified or heroified after death as a recompense for services or striking exploits. In the course of a voyage into the Indian sea, undertaken by command of Cassander, Euemerus professed to have discovered a fabulous country called Panchaia, in which was a temple of the Triphylian Zeus : he there described a golden column, with an inscription purporting to have been put up by Zeus himself, and detailing his exploits while on earth. Some eminent men, among whom may be numbered Polybius, followed the views of Euemerus, and the Roman poet Ennius translated his Historia Sacra; but on the whole he never acquired favor, and the unblushing inventions which he put into circulation were of themselves sufficient to disgrace both the author and his opinions. The doctrine that all the gods had once existed as mere men offended the religious pagans, and drew upon Euemerus the imputation of atheism; but, on the other hand, it came to be warmly espoused by several of the Christian assailants of paganism, by Minucius Felix, Lactantius, and St. Augustin, who found the ground ready prepared for them in their efforts to strip Zeus and the other pagan gods of the attributes of deity. They believed not only in the main theory, but also in the copious details of Euemerus; and the same man whom Strabo casts aside as almost a proverb for mendacity, was extolled by them as an excellent specimen of careful historical inquiry.

But though the pagan world repudiated that “lowering tone of explanation”, which effaced the superhuman personality of Zeus and the great gods of Olympus, the mythical persons and narratives generally came to be surveyed more and more from the point of view of history, and subjected to such alterations as might make them look more like plausible matter of fact. Polybius, Strabo, Dioderus, and Pausanias, cast the myths into historical statements—with more or less of transformation, as the case may require, assuming always that there is a basis of truth, which may be discovered by removing poetical exaggerations and allowing for mistakes. Strabo, in particular, lays down that principle broadly and unequivocally in his remarks upon Homer. To give pure fiction, without any foundation of fact, was in his judgment utterly unworthy of so great a genius; and he comments with considerable acrimony on the geographer Eratosthenes, who maintains the opposite opinion. Again, Polybius tells us that the Homeric Eolus, the dispenser of the winds by appointment from Zeus, was in reality a man eminently skilled in navigation, and exact in predicting the weather; that the Cyclopes and Laestrygones were wild and savage real men in Sicily; and that Scylla and Charybdis were a figurative representation of dangers arising from pirates in the Strait of Messina. Strabo speaks of the amazing expeditions of Dionysus and Heracles, and of the long wanderings of Jason, Menelaus, and Odysseus, in the same category with the extended commercial range of the Phoenician merchant-ships : he explains the report of Theseus and Poirithous having descended to Hades, by their dangerous earthly pilgrimages, — and the invocation of the Dioskuri as the protectors of the imperiled mariner, by the celebrity which they had acquired as real men and navigators.

Diodorus gave at considerable length versions of the current fables respecting the most illustrious names in the Grecian mythical world, compiled confusedly out of distinct and incongruous authors. Sometimes the myth is reproduced in its primitive simplicity, but for the most part it is partially, and sometimes wholly, historicized. Amidst this jumble of dissentient authorities we can trace little of a systematic view, except the general conviction that there was at the bottom of the myths a real chronological sequence of persons, and real matter of fact, historical or ultra-historical. Nevertheless, there are some few occasions on which Diodorus brings us back a step nearer to the point of view of the old logographers. For, in reference to Heracles, he protests against the scheme of cutting down the myths to the level of present reality, and contends that a special standard of ultra-historical credibility ought to be constituted, so as to include the myth in its native dimensions, and do fitting honor to the grand, beneficent, and superhuman personality of Heracles and other heroes or demi-gods. To apply to such persons the common measure of humanity (he says), and to cavil at the glorious picture which grateful man has drawn of them, is at once ungracious and irrational. All nice criticism into the truth of the legendary narratives is out of place : we show our reverence to the god by acquiescing in the incredibilities of his history, and we must be content with the best guesses which we can make, amidst the inextricable confusion and numberless discrepancies which they present. Yet though Diodorus here exhibits a preponderance of the religious sentiment over the purely historical point of view, and thus reminds us of a period earlier than Thucydides—he in another place inserts a series of stories which seem to be derived from Euemerus, and in which Uranus, Kronus, and Zeus appear reduced to the character of human kings celebrated for their exploits and benefactions. Many of the authors, whom Diodorus copies, have so entangled together Grecian, Asiatic, Egyptian, and Libyan fables, that it becomes impossible to ascertain how much of this heterogeneous mass can be considered as at all connected with the genuine Hellenic mind.

Pausanias is far more strictly Hellenic in his view of the Grecian myths than Diodorus : his sincere piety makes him inclined to faith generally with regard to the mythical narratives, but subject nevertheless to the frequent necessity of historicizing or allegorizing them. His belief in the general reality of the mythical history and chronology is complete, in spite of the many discrepancies which he finds in it, and which he is unable to reconcile.

Another author who seems to have conceived clearly, and applied consistently, the semi-historical theory of the Grecian myths, is Palaephatus, of whose work what appears to be a short abstract has been preserved. In the short preface of this treatise concerning Incredible Tales, he remarks, that some men, from want of instruction, believe all the current narratives; while others, more searching and cautious, disbelieve them altogether. Each of these extremes he is anxious to avoid. On the one hand, he thinks that no narrative could ever have acquired credence unless it had been founded in truth; on the other, it is impossible for him to accept so much of the existing narratives as conflicts with the analogies of present natural phenomena. If such things ever had been, they would still continue to be — but they never have so occurred; and the extra-analogical features of the stories are to be ascribed to the license of the poets. Palaephatus wishes to adopt a middle course, neither accepting all nor rejecting all : accordingly, he had taken great pains to separate the true from the false in many of the narratives; he had visited the localities wherein they had taken place, and made careful inquiries from old men and others. The results of his researches are presented in a new version of fifty legends, among the most celebrated and the most fabulous, comprising the Centaurs, Pasiphae, Aktaeon, Cadmus and the Sparti, the Sphinx, Cycnus, Daedalus, the Trojan horse, Eolus, Scylla, Geryon, Bellorophon, etc.

It must be confessed that Palaephatus has performed his promise of transforming the “incredibilia” into narratives in themselves plausible and unobjectionable, and that in doing so he always follows some thread of analogy, real or verbal. The Centaurs (he tells us) were a body of young men from the village of Nephele in Thessaly, who first trained and mounted horses for the purpose of repelling a herd of bulls belonging to Ixion king of the Lapithae, which had run wild and done great damage : they pursued these wild bulls on horseback, and pierced them with their spears, thus acquiring both the name of Prickers and the imputed attribute of joint body with the horse. Aktaeon was an Arcadian, who neglected the cultivation of his land for the pleasures of hunting, and was thus eaten up by the expense of his hounds. The dragon whom Cadmus killed at Thebes, was in reality Drako, king of Thebes; and the dragon's teeth which he was said to have sown, and from whence sprung a crop of armed men, were in point of fact elephants’ teeth, which Cadmus as a rich Phoenician had brought over with him : the sons of Drako sold these elephants' teeth and employed the proceeds to levy troops against Cadmus. Dedalus, instead of flying across the sea on wings, had escaped from Crete in a swift sailing-boat under a violent storm : Kottus, Briareus, and Gyges were not persons with one hundred hands, but inhabitants of the village of Hekatoncheiria in Upper Macedonia, who warred with the inhabitants of Mount Olympus against the Titans : Scylla, whom Odysseus so narrowly escaped, was a fastsailing piratical vessel, as was also Pegasus, the alleged winged horse of Bellorophon.

By such ingenious conjectures, Palaephatus eliminates all the incredible circumstances, and leaves to us a string of tales perfectly credible and commonplace, which we should readily believe, provided a very moderate amount of testimony could be produced in their favor. If his treatment not only disenchants the original myths, but even effaces their generic and essential character, we ought to remember that this is not more than what is done by Thucydides in his sketch of the Trojan war. Palaephatus handles the myths consistently, according to the semi-historical theory, and his results exhibit the maximum which that theory can ever present. By aid of conjecture, we get out of the impossible, and arrive at matters intrinsically plausible, but totally uncertified; beyond this point we cannot penetrate, without the light of extrinsic evidence, since there is no intrinsic mark to distinguish truth from plausible fiction.


It remains that we should notice the manner in which the ancient myths were received and dealt with by the philosophers. The earliest expression which we hear, on the part of philosophy, is the severe censure bestowed upon them on ethical grounds by Xenophanes of Kolophon, and seemingly by some others of his contemporaries. It was apparently in reply to such charges, which did not admit of being directly rebutted, that Theagenes of Rhegium (about 520 BC) first started the idea of a double meaning in the Homeric and Hesiodic narratives,— an interior sense, different from that which the words in their obvious meaning bore, yet to a certain extent analogous, and discoverable by sagacious divination. Upon this principle, he allegorized especially the battle of the gods in the Iliad. In the succeeding century Anaxagoras and Metrodorus carried out the allegorical explanation more comprehensively and systematically; the former representing the mythical personages as mere mental conceptions, invested with name and gender, and illustrative of ethical precepts, — the latter connecting them with physical principles and phenomena. Metrodorus resolved not only the persons of Zeus, Here, and Athene, but also those of Agamemnon, Achilles, and Hector, into various elemental combinations and physical agencies, and treated the adventures ascribed to them as natural facts concealed under the veil of allegory. Empedocles, Prodikus, Antisthenes, Parmenides, Heracleides of Pontus, and in a later age, Chrysippus, and the Stoic philosophers generally, followed more or less the same principle of treating the popular gods as allegorical personages; while the expositors of Homer (such as Stesimbrotus, Glaukon, and others, even down to the Alexandrine age), though none of them proceeded to the same extreme length as Metrodorus, employed allegory amongst other media of explanation for the purpose of solving difficulties, or eluding reproaches against the poet.

In the days of Plato and Xenophon, this allegorizing interpretation was one of the received methods of softening down the obnoxious myths —though Plato himself treated it as an insufficient defense, seeing that the bulk of youthful hearers could not see through the allegory, but embraced the story literally as it was set forth. Pausanias tells us, that when he first began to write his work, he treated many of the Greek legends as silly and undeserving of serious attention; but as he proceeded, he gradually arrived at the full conviction, that the ancient sages had designedly spoken in enigmatical language, and that there was valuable truth wrapped up in their narratives : it was the duty of a pious man, therefore, to study and interpret, but not to reject stories current and accredited respecting the gods. And others,—arguing from the analogy of the religious mysteries, which could not be divulged without impiety to any except such as had been specially admitted and initiated,—maintained that it would be a profanation to reveal directly to the vulgar, the genuine scheme of nature and the divine administration : the ancient poets and philosophers had taken the only proper course, of talking to the many in types and parables, and reserving the naked truth for privileged and qualified intelligences. The allegorical mode of explaining the ancient fables became more and more popular in the third and fourth centuries after the Christian era, especially among the new Platonic philosophers; being both congenial to their Orientalized turn of thought, and useful as a shield against the attacks of the Christians.

It was from the same strong necessity, of accommodating the old myths to a new standard both of belief and of appreciation, that both the historical and the allegorical schemes of transforming them arose; the literal narrative being decomposed for the purpose of arriving at a base either of particular matter of fact, or of general physical or moral truth. Instructed men were commonly disposed to historicize only the heroic legends, and to allegorize more or less of the divine legends : the attempt of Euemerus to historicize the latter was for the most part denounced as irreligious, while that of Metrodorus to allegorize the former met with no success. In allegorizing, moreover, even the divine legends, it was usual to apply the scheme of allegory only to the inferior gods, though some of the great Stoic philosophers carried it farther, and allegorized all the separate personal gods, leaving only an all-pervading cosmic Mind, essential as a coefficient along with Matter, yet not separable from Matter. But many pious pagans seem to have perceived that allegory pushed to this extent was fatal to all living religious faith, inasmuch as it divested the gods of their character of Persons, sympathizing with mankind and modifiable in their dispositions according to the conduct and prayers of the believer: and hence they permitted themselves to employ allegorical interpretation only to some of the obnoxious legends connected with the superior gods, leaving the personality of the latter unimpeached.

One novelty, however, introduced seemingly by the philosopher Empedocles and afterwards expanded by others, deserves notice, inasmuch as it modified considerably the old religious creed by drawing a pointed contrast between gods and daemons, — a distinction hardly at all manifested in Homer, but recognized in the Works and Days of Hesiod. Empedocles’ widened the gap between the two, and founded upon it important consequences. The gods were good, immortal, and powerful agents, having freewill and intelligence, but without appetite, passion, or infirmity : the daemons were of a mired nature between gods and men, ministers and interpreters from the former to the latter, but invested also with an agency and dispositions of their own. They were very long-lived, but not immortal, and subject to the passions and propensities of men, so that there were among them beneficent and maleficent demons with every shade of intermediate difference.


It had been the mistake (according to these philosophers) of the old myths to ascribe to the gods proceedings really belonging to the Demons, who were always the immediate communicants with mortal nature, inspiring prophetic power to the priestesses of the oracles, sending dreams and omens, and perpetually interfering either for good or for evil. The wicked and violent demons, having committed many enormities, had thus sometimes incurred punishment from the gods : besides which, their bad dispositions had imposed upon men the necessity of appeasing them by religious ceremonies of a kind acceptable to such beings: hence, the human sacrifices, the violent, cruel, and obscene exhibitions, the wailings and fastings, the tearing and eating of raw flesh, which it had become customary to practice on various consecrated occasions, and especially in the Dionysian solemnities. Moreover, the discreditable actions imputed to the gods,—the terrific combats, the Typhonic and Titanic convulsions, the rapes, abductions, flight, servitude, and concealment,—all these were really the doings and sufferings of bad demons, placed far below the sovereign agency—equable, undisturbed, and unpolluted—of the immortal gods. The action of such demons upon mankind was fitful and intermittent : they sometimes perished or changed their local abode, so that oracles which had once been inspired became after a time forsaken and disfranchised.

This distinction between gods and demons appeared to save in a great degree both the truth of the old legends and the dignity of the gods : it obviated the necessity of pronouncing either that the gods were unworthy, or the legends untrue. Yet although devised for the purpose of satisfying a more scrupulous religious sensibility, it was found inconvenient afterwards, when assailants arose against paganism generally. For while it abandoned as indefensible a large portion of what had once been genuine faith, it still retained the same word demons with an entirely altered signification. The Christian writers in their controversies found ample warrant among the earlier pagan authors for treating all the gods as demons — and not less ample warrant among the later pagans for denouncing the demons generally as evil beings.

Such were the different modes in which the ancient myths were treated, during the literary life of Greece, by the four classes above named—poets, logographers, historians, and philosophers.

Literal acceptance, and unconscious, uninquiring faith, such as they had obtained from the original auditors to whom they were addressed, they now found only among the multitude—alike retentive of traditional feelings and fearful of criticizing the proceedings of the gods. But with instructed men they became rather subjects of respectful and curious analysis—all agreeing that the Word as tendered to them was inadmissible, yet all equally convinced that it contained important meaning, though hidden yet not undiscoverable. A very large proportion of the force of Grecian intellect was engaged in searching after this unknown base, by guesses, in which sometimes the principle of semi-historical interpretation was assumed, sometimes that of allegorical, without any collateral evidence in either case, and without possibility of verification. Out of the one assumption grew a string of allegorized phenomenal truths, out of the other a long series of seeming historical events and chronological persons, —both elicited from the transformed myths and from nothing else

The utmost which we accomplish by means of the semi-historical theory, even in its most successful applications, is, that after leaving out from the mythical narrative all that is miraculous or high-colored or extravagant, we arrive at a series of credible incidents—incidents which may, perhaps, have really occurred, and against which no intrinsic presumption can be raised. This is exactly the character of a well-written modern novel (as, for example, several among the compositions of Defoe), the whole story of which is such as may well have occurred in real life: it is plausible fiction, and nothing beyond. To raise plausible fiction up to the superior dignity of truth, some positive testimony or positive ground of inference must be shown; even the highest measure of intrinsic probability is not alone sufficient. A man who tells us that, on the day of the battle of Plataea, rain fell on the spot of ground where the city of New York now stands, will neither deserve nor obtain credit, because he can have had no means of positive knowledge; though the statement is not in the slightest degree improbable. On the other hand, statements in themselves very improbable may well deserve belief, provided they be supported by sufficient positive evidence; thus the canal dug by order of Xerxes across the promontory of Mount Athos, and the sailing of the Persian fleet through it, is a fact which I believe, because it is well-attested—notwithstanding its remarkable improbability, which so far misled Juvenal as to induce him to single out the narrative as a glaring example of Grecian mendacity. Again, many critics have observed that the general tale of the Trojan war (apart from the superhuman agencies) is not more improbable than that of the Crusades, which everyone admits to be an historical fact. But (even if we grant this position, which is only true to a small extent), it is not sufficient to show an analogy between the two cases in respect to negative presumptions alone; the analogy ought to be shown to hold between them in respect to positive certificate also. The Crusades are a curious phenomenon in history, but we accept them, nevertheless, as an unquestionable fact, because the antecedent improbability is surmounted by adequate contemporary testimony. When the like testimony, both in amount and kind, is produced to establish the historical reality of a Trojan war, we shall not hesitate to deal with the two events on the same footing.


In applying the semi-historical theory to Grecian mythical narrative, it has been often forgotten that a certain strength of testimony, or positive ground of belief, must first be tendered, before we can be called upon to discuss the antecedent probability or improbability of the incidents alleged. The belief of the Greeks themselves, without the smallest aid of special or contemporary witnesses, has been tacitly assumed as sufficient to support the case, provided only sufficient deduction be made from the mythical narratives to remove all antecedent improbabilities. It has been taken for granted that the faith of the people must have rested originally upon some particular historical event, involving the identical persons, things, and places which the original myths exhibit, or at least the most prominent among them. But when we examine the pyschagogic influences predominant in the society among whom this belief originally grew up, we shall see that their belief is of little or no evidentiary value, and that the growth and diffusion of it may be satisfactorily explained without supposing any special basis of matters of fact. The popular faith, so far as it counts for anything, testifies in favor of the entire and literal myths, which are now universally rejected as incredible. We have thus the very minimum of positive proof, and the maximum of negative presumption : we may diminish the latter by conjectural omissions and interpolations, but we cannot by any artifice increase the former: the narrative ceases to be incredible, but it still remains uncertified,—a mere commonplace possibility. Nor is fiction always, or essentially, extravagant and incredible. It is often not only plausible and coherent, but even more like truth (if a paradoxical phrase may be allowed) than truth itself. Nor can we, in the absence of any extrinsic test, reckon upon any intrinsic mark to discriminate the one from the other.

In the semi-historical theory respecting Grecian mythical narrative, the critic unconsciously transports into the Homeric age those habits of classification and distinction, and that standard of acceptance or rejection, which he finds current in his own. Amongst us, the distinction between historical fact and fiction is highly valued as well as familiarly understood : we have a long history of the past, deduced from a study of contemporary evidences; and we have a body of fictitious literature, stamped with its own mark and interesting in its own way. Speaking generally, no man could now hope to succeed permanently in transferring any striking incident from the latter category into the former, nor could any man deliberately attempt it without incurring well-merited obloquy. But this historical sense, now so deeply rooted in the modern mind that we find a difficulty in conceiving any people to be without it, is the fruit of records and inquiries, first applied to the present, and then preserved and studied by subsequent generations; while in a society which has not yet formed the habit of recording its present, the real facts of the past can never be known; the difference between attested matter of fact and plausible fiction—between truth and that which is like truth—can neither be discerned nor sought for. Yet it is precisely upon the supposition that this distinction is present to men's habitual thoughts, that the semi-historical theory of the myths is grounded.

It is perfectly true, as has often been stated, that the Grecian epic contains what are called traditions respecting the past — the larger portion of it, indeed, consists of nothing else. But what are these traditions? They are the matter of those songs and stories which have acquired hold on the public mind; they are the creations of the poets and storytellers themselves, each of whom finds some preexisting, and adds others of his own, new and previously untold, under the impulse and authority of the Inspiring Muse. Homer doubtless found many songs and stories current with respect to the siege of Troy; he received and transmitted some of these traditions, recast and transformed others, and enlarged the whole mass by new creations of his own. To the subsequent poets, such as Arktinus and Lesches, these Homeric creations formed portions of preexisting tradition, with which they dealt in the same manner; so that the whole mass of traditions constituting the tale of Troy became larger and larger with each successive contributor. To assume a generic difference between the older and the newer strata of tradition—to treat the former as morsels of history, and the latter as appendages of fiction — is an hypothesis gratuitous at the least, not to say inadmissible. For the further we travel back into the past, the more do we recede from the clear day of positive history, and the deeper do we plunge into the unsteady twilight and gorgeous clouds of fancy and feeling. It was one of the agreeable dreams of the Grecian epic, that the man who travelled far enough northward beyond the Rhipaean mountains, would in time reach the delicious country and genial climate of the virtuous Hyperboreans—the votaries and favorites of Apollo, who dwelt in the extreme north beyond the chilling blasts of Boreas. Now the hope that we may, by carrying our researches up the stream of time, exhaust the limits of fiction, and land ultimately upon some points of solid truth, appears to me no less illusory than leis northward journey in quest of the Hyperborean Elysium.

The general disposition to adopt the semi-historical theory as to the genesis of Grecian myths, arises in part from reluctance in critics to impute to the mythopoeic ages extreme credulity or fraud; together with the usual presumption, that where much is believed some portion of it must be true. There would be some weight in these grounds of reasoning, if the ages under discussion had been supplied with records and accustomed to critical inquiry. But amongst a people unprovided with the former and strangers to the latter, credulity is naturally at its maximum, as well in the narrator himself as in his hearers: the idea of deliberate fraud is moreover inapplicable, for if the hearers are disposed to accept what is related to them as a revelation from the Muse, the oestrus of composition is quite sufficient to impart a similar persuasion to the poet whose mind is penetrated with it. The belief of that day can hardly be said to stand apart by itself as an act of reason. It becomes confounded with vivacious imagination and earnest emotion; and in every case where these mental excitabilities are powerfully acted upon, faith ensues unconsciously and as a matter of course. How active and prominent such tendencies were among the early Greeks, the extraordinary beauty and originality of their epic poetry may teach us.

It is, besides, a presumption far too largely and indiscriminately applied, even in our own advanced age, that where much is believed, something must necessarily be true — that accredited fiction is always traceable to some basis of historical truth. The influence of imagination and feeling is not confined simply to the process of retouching, transforming, or magnifying narratives originally founded on fact; it will often create new narratives of its own, without any such preliminary basis. Where there is any general body of sentiment pervading men living in society, whether it be religious or political—love, admiration, or antipathy — all incidents tending to illustrate that sentiment are eagerly welcomed, rapidly circulated and (as a general rule) easily accredited. If real incidents are not at hand, impressive fictions will be provided to satisfy the demand. The perfect harmony of such fictions with the prevalent feeling stands in the place of certifying testimony, and causes men to hear them not merely with credence, but even with delight: to call them in question and require proof, is a task which cannot be undertaken without incurring obloquy. Of such tendencies in the human mind, abundant evidence is furnished by the innumerable religious legends which have acquired currency in various parts of the world, and of which no country was more fertile than Greece —legends which derived their origin, not from special facts misreported and exaggerated, but from pious feelings pervading the society, and translated into narrative by forward and imaginative minds — legends, in which not merely the incidents, but often even the personages are unreal, yet in which the generating sentiment is conspicuously discernible, providing its own matter as well as its own form. Other sentiments also, as well as the religious, provided they be fervent and widely diffused, will find expression in current narrative, and become portions of the general public belief — every celebrated and notorious character is the source of a thousand fictions exemplifying his peculiarities. And if it be true, as I think present observation may show us, that such creative agencies are even now visible and effective, when the materials of genuine history are copious and critically studied—much more are we warranted in concluding that, in ages destitute of records, strangers to historical testimony, and full of belief in divine inspiration both as to the future and as to the past, narratives purely fictitious will acquire ready and uninquiring credence, provided only they be plausible and in harmony with the preconceptions of the auditors.

The allegorical interpretation of the myths has been by several learned investigators, especially by Creuzer, connected with the hypothesis of an ancient and highly instructed body of priests, having their origin either in Egypt or in the East, and communicating to the rude and barbarous Greeks religious, physical, and historical knowledge under the veil of symbols. At a time (we are told) when language was yet in its infancy, visible symbols were the most vivid means of acting upon the minds of ignorant hearers: the next step was to pass to symbolical language and expressions—for a plain and literal exposition, even if understood at all, would at least have been listened to with indifference, as not corresponding with any mental demand. In such allegorizing way, then, the early priests set forth their doctrines respecting God, nature, and humanity — a refined monotheism and a theological philosophy—and to this purpose the earliest myths were turned. But another class of myths, more popular and more captivating, grew up under the hands of the poets—myths purely epical, and descriptive of real or supposed past events. The allegorical myths, being taken up by the poets, insensibly became confounded in the same category with the purely narrative myths—the matter symbolized was no longer thought of, while the symbolizing words came to be construed in their own literal meaning—and the basis of the early allegory, thus lost among the general public, was only preserved as a secret among various religious fraternities, composed of members allied together by initiation in certain mystical ceremonies, and administered by hereditary families of presiding priests. In the Orphic and Bacchic sects, in the Eleusinian and Samothracian mysteries, was thus treasured up the secret doctrine of the old theological and philosophical myths, which had once constituted the primitive legendary stock of Greece, in the hands of the original priesthood and in ages anterior to Homer. Persons who had gone through the preliminary ceremonies of initiation, were permitted at length to hear, though under strict obligation of secrecy, till ancient religious and cosmogonic doctrine, revealing the destination of man and the certainty of posthumous rewards and punishments — all disengaged from the corruptions of poets, as well as from the symbols and allegories under which they still remained buried in the eyes of the vulgar. The mysteries of Greece were thus traced up to the earliest ages, and represented as the only faithful depository channels of that purer theology and physics which had originally been communicated, though under the unavoidable inconvenience of a symbolical expression, by an enlightened priesthood coming from abroad to the then rude barbarians of the country.


But this theory, though advocated by several learned men, has been shown to be unsupported and erroneous. It implies a mistaken view both of the antiquity and the purport of the mysteries, which cannot be safely carried up even to the age of Hesiod, and which, though imposing and venerable as religious ceremonies, included no recondite or esoteric teaching.

The doctrine, supposed to have been originally symbolized and subsequently overclouded, in the Greek myths, was in reality first intruded into them by the unconscious fancies of later interpreters. It was one of the various roads which instructed men took to escape from the literal admission of the ancient myths, and to arrive at some new form of belief, more consonant with their ideas of what the attributes and character of the gods ought to be. It was one of the trays of constituting, by help of the mysteries, a philosophical religion apart from the general public, and of connecting that distinction with the earliest periods of Grecian society. Such a distinction was both avowed and justified among the superior men of the later pagan world. Varro and Scaevola distributed theology into three distinct departments,—the mythical or fabulous, the civil, and the physical. The first had its place in the theatre, and was left without any interference to the poets; the second belonged to the city of political community as such,—it comprised the regulation of all the public worship and religious rites, and was consigned altogether to the direction of the magistrate; the third was the privilege of philosophers, but was reserved altogether for private discussion in the schools, apart from the general public. As a member of the city, the philosopher sympathized with the audience in the theatre, and took a devout share in the established ceremonies, nor was he justified in trying what he heard in the one or saw in the other by his own ethical standard. But in the private assemblies of instructed or inquisitive men, he enjoyed the fullest liberty of canvassing every received tenet, and of broaching his own theories unreservedly, respecting the existence and nature of the gods. By these discussions, the activity of the philosophical mind was maintained and truth elicited; but it was such truth as the body of the people ought not to hear, lest their faith in their own established religious worship should be overthrown. In thus distinguishing the civil theology from the fabulous, Varro was enabled to cast upon the poets all the blame of the objectionable points in the popular theology, and to avoid the necessity of pronouncing censure on the magistrates, who (he contended) had made as good a compromise with the settled prejudices of the public as the case permitted.

The same conflicting sentiments which led the philosophers to decompose the divine myths into allegory, impelled the historians to melt down the heroic myths into something like continuous political history, with a long series of chronology calculated upon the heroic pedigrees. The one process as well as the other was interpretative guesswork, proceeding upon unauthorized assumptions, and without any verifying test or evidence : while it frittered away the characteristic beauty of the myth into something essentially anti-mythical, it sought to arrive both at history and philosophy by impracticable roads. That the superior men of antiquity should have striven hard to save the dignity of legends which constituted the charm of their literature as well as the substance of the popular religion, we cannot be at all surprised; but it is gratifying to find Plato discussing the subject in a more philosophical spirit. The Platonic Socrates, being asked whether he believed the current Attic fable respecting the abduction of Oreithyia (daughter of Erechtheus) by Boreas, replies, in substance,—“It would not be strange if I disbelieved it, as the clever men do; I might then show my cleverness by saying that a gust of Boreas blew her down from the rocks above while she was at play, and that, having been killed in this manner, she was reported to have been carried off by Boreas. Such speculations are amusing enough, but they belong to men ingenious and busy-minded overmuch, and not greatly to be envied, if it be only for this reason, that, after having set right one fable, they are under the necessity of applying the same process to a host of others—Hippo-centaurs, Chimeras, Gorgons, Pegasus, and numberless other monsters and incredibilities. A man, who, disbelieving these stories, shall try to find a probable basis for each of them, will display an ill-placed acuteness and take upon himself an endless burden, for which I at least have no leisure : accordingly, I forego such researches, and believe in the current version of the stories”.

These remarks of Plato are valuable, not simply because they point out the uselessness of digging for a supposed basis of truth in the myths, but because they at the same time suggest the true reason for mistrusting all such tentatives. The myths form a class apart, abundant as well as peculiar : to remove any individual myth from its own class into that of history or philosophy, by simple conjecture, and without any collateral evidence, is of no advantage, unless you can perform a similar process on the remainder. If the process be trustworthy, it ought to be applied to all; and e converso, if it be not applicable to all, it is not trustworthy as applied to any one specially; always assuming no special evidence to be accessible. To detach any individual myth from the class to which it belongs, is to present it in an erroneous point of view; we have no choice except to admit them as they stand, by putting ourselves approximately into the frame of mind of those for whom they were destined and to whom they appeared worthy of credit.


If Plato thus discountenances all attempts to transform the myths by interpretation into history or philosophy, indirectly recognizing the generic difference between them—we find substantially the same view pervading the elaborate precepts in his treatise on the Republic. He there regards the myths, not as embodying either matter-of-fact or philosophical principle, but as portions of religious and patriotic faith, and instruments of ethical tuition. Instead of allowing the poets to frame them according to the impulses of their own genius, and with a view to immediate popularity, he directs the legislator to provide types of his own for the characters of the gods and heroes, and to suppress all such divine and heroic legends as are not in harmony with these pre-established canons. In the Platonic system, the myths are not to be matters of history, nor yet of spontaneous or casual fiction, but of prescribed faith : he supposes that the people will believe, as a thing of course, what the poets circulate, and he therefore directs that the latter shall circulate nothing which does not tend to ennoble and improve the feelings. He conceives the myths as stories composed to illustrate the general sentiments of the poets and the community, respecting the character and attributes of the gods and heroes, or respecting the social relations, and ethical duties as well as motives of mankind : hence the obligation upon the legislator to prescribe beforehand the types of character which shall be illustrated, and to restrain the poets from following out any opposing fancies. “Let us neither believe ourselves (he exclaims), nor permit any one to circulate, that Theseus son of Poseidon and Peirithous son of Zeus, or any other hero or son of a god, could ever have brought themselves to commit abductions or other enormities such as are now falsely ascribed to them. We must compel the poets to say, either that such persons were not the sons of gods, or that they were not the perpetrators of such misdeeds”.

Most of the myths which the youth hear and repeat (according to Plato) are false, but some of them are true: the great and prominent myths which appear in Homer and Hesiod are no less fictions than the rest. But fiction constitutes one of the indispensable instruments of mental training as well as truth; only the legislator must take care that the fiction so employed shall be beneficent and not mischievous. As the mischievous fictions (he says) take their rise from wrong preconceptions respecting the character of the gods and heroes, so the way to correct them is to enforce, by authorized compositions, the adoption of a more correct standard.

The comments which Plato has delivered with so much force in his Republic, and the enactments which he deduce from them, are in the main an expansion of that sentiment of condemnation, which he shared with so many other philosophers, towards a large portion of the Homeric and Hesiodic stories. But the manner in which he has set forth this opinion, unfolds to us more clearly the real character of the mythical narratives. They are creations of the productive minds in the community, deduced from the supposed attributes of the gods and heroes : so Plato views them, and in such character he proposes to amend them. The legislator would cause to be prepared a better and truer picture of the foretime, because he would start from truer (that is to say, more creditable) conceptions of the gods and heroes. For Plato rejects the myths respecting Zeus and Here, or Theseus and Peirithous, not from any want of evidence, but because they are unworthy of gods and heroes : he proposes to call forth new myths, which, though he admits them at the outset to be fiction, he knows will soon be received as true, and supply more valuable lessons of conduct.

We may consider, then, that Plato disapproves of the attempt to identify the old myths either with exaggerated history or with disguised philosophy. He shares in the current faith, without any suspicion or criticism, as to Orpheus, Palamedes, Daedalus, Amphion, Theseus, Achilles, Cheiron, and other mythical personages; but what chiefly fills his mind is, the inherited sentiment of deep reverence for these superhuman characters and for the age to which they belonged, — a sentiment sufficiently strong to render him not only an unbeliever in such legends as conflict with it, but also a deliberate creator of new legends for the purpose of expanding and gratifying it. The more we examine this sentiment, both in the mind of Plato as well as in that of the Greeks generally, the more shall we be convinced that it formed essentially and inseparably a portion of Hellenic religious faith. The myth both presupposes, and springs out of, a settled basis, and a strong expansive force of religious, social, and patriotic feeling, operating upon a past which is little better than a blank as to positive knowledge. It resembles history, in so far as its form is narrative; it resembles philosophy, in so far as it is occasionally illustrative; but in its essence and substance, in the mental tendencies by which it is created as well as in those by which it is judged and upheld, it is a popularized expression of the divine and heroic faith of the people.

Grecian antiquity cannot be at all understood except in connection with Grecian religion. It begins with gods and it ends with historical men, the former being recognized not simply as gods, but as primitive ancestors, and connected with the latter by a long mythical genealogy, partly heroic and partly human. Now the whole value of such genealogies arises from their being taken entire; the god or hero at the top is in point of fact the most important member of the whole for the length and continuity of the series arises from anxiety on the part of historical men to join themselves by a thread of descent with the being whom they worshipped in their gentile sacrifices. Without the ancestral god, the whole pedigree would have become not only acephalous, but worthless and uninteresting. The pride of the Heracleides, Asclepiads, Neleids, Daedalids, etc. was attached to the primitive eponymous hero and to the god from whom they sprung, not to the line of names, generally long and barren, through which the divine or heroic dignity gradually dwindled down into common manhood. Indeed, the length of the genealogy (as I have before remarked) was an evidence of the humility of the historical man, which led him to place himself at a respectful distance from the gods or heroes; for Hecataeus of Miletus, who ranked himself as the fifteenth descendant of a god, might perhaps have accounted it an overweening impiety in any living man to claim a god for his immediate father.


The whole chronology of Greece, anterior to 776 BC, consists of calculations founded upon these mythical genealogies, especially upon that of the Spartan kings and their descent from Heracles, — thirty years being commonly taken as the equivalent of a generation, or about three generations to a century. This process of computation was altogether illusory, as applying historical and chronological conditions to a case on which they had no bearing. Though the domain of history was seemingly enlarged, the religious element was tacitly set aside: when the heroes and gods were chronologized, they became insensibly approximated to the limits of humanity, and the process indirectly gave encouragement to the theory of Euemerus. Personages originally legendary and poetical were erected into definite landmarks for measuring the duration of the foretime, thus gaining in respect to historical distinctness, but not without loss on the score of religious association. Both Euemerus and the subsequent Christian writers, who denied the original and inherent divinity of the pagan gods, had a great advantage in carrying their chronological researches strictly and consistently upwards —for all chronology fails as soon as we suppose a race superior to common humanity.

Moreover, it is to be remarked that the pedigree of the Spartan kings, which Apollodorus and Eratosthenes selected as the basis of their estimate of time, is nowise superior in credibility and trustworthiness to the thousand other gentile and family pedigrees with which Greece abounded; it is rather indeed to be numbered among the most incredible of all, seeing that Heracles as a progenitor is placed at the head of perhaps more pedigrees than any other Grecian god or hero. The descent of the Spartan king Leonidas from Heracles rests upon no better evidence than that of Aristotle or Hippocrates from Asclepius,—of Evagoras or Thucydides from Eakus,—of Socrates from Dadalus, — of the Spartan heraldic family from Talthybius,—of the prophetic Iamid family in Elis from Iamus,—of the root-gatherers in Pelion from Cheiron,—and of Hekataeus and his gens from some god in the sixteenth ascending line of the series. There is little exaggeration in saying, indeed, that no permanent combination of men in Greece, religious, social, or professional, was without a similar pedigree; all arising out of the same exigencies of the feelings and imagination, to personify as well as to sanctify the bond of union among the members. Every one of these gentes began with a religious and ended with an historical person. At some point or other in the upward series, entities of history were exchanged for entities of religion; but where that point is to be found we are unable to say, nor had the wisest of the ancient Greeks any means of determining. Thus much, however, we know, that the series taken as a whole, though dear and precious to the believing Greek, possesses no value as chronological evidence to the historian.

When Hecataeus visited Thebes in Egypt, he mentioned to the Egyptian priests, doubtless with a feeling of satisfaction and pride, the imposing pedigree of the gens to which he belonged,—with fifteen ancestors in ascending line, and a god as the initial progenitor. But he found himself immeasurably overdone by the priests “who genealogized against him”. They showed to him three hundred and forty-one wooden colossal statues, representing the succession of chief priests in the temple in uninterrupted series from father to son, through a space of 11,300 years. Prior to the commencement of this long period (they said), the gods dwelling along with men, had exercised sway in Egypt; but they repudiated altogether the idea of men begotten by gods or of heroes.

  Both these counter-genealogies, are, in respect to trustworthiness and evidence, on the same footing. Each represents partly the religious faith, partly the retrospective imagination, of the persons from whom it emanated; in each, the lower members of the series (to what extent we cannot tell) are real, the upper members fabulous; but in each also the series derived all its interest and all its imposing effect from being conceived unbroken and entire. Herodotus is much perplexed by the capital discrepancy between the Grecian and Egyptian chronologies, and vainly employs his ingenuity in reconciling them. There is no standard of objective evidence by which either the one or the other of them can be tried : each has its own subjective value, in conjunction with the faith and feelings of Egyptians and Greeks, and each presupposes in the believer certain mental prepossessions which are not to be found beyond its own local limits. Nor is the greater or less extent of duration at all important, when we once pass the limits of evidence and verifiable reality. One century of recorded time, adequately studded with authentic and orderly events, presents a greater mass and a greater difficulty of transition to the imagination than a hundred centuries of barren genealogy. Herodotus, in discussing the age of Homer and Hesiod, treats an anterior point of 400 years as if it were only yesterday; the reign of Henry VI is separated from us by an equal interval, and the reader will not require to be reminded how long that interval now appears.

The mythical age was peopled with a mingled aggregate of gods, heroes, and men, so confounded together that it was often impossible to distinguish to which class any individual name belonged. In regard to the Thracian god Zalmoxis, the Hellespontic Greeks interpreted his character and attributes according to the scheme of Euemerism. They affirmed that be had been a man, the slave of the philosopher Pythagoras at Samos, and that he had by abilities and artifice established a religious ascendency over the minds of the Thracians, and obtained from them divine honors. Herodotus cannot bring himself to believe this story, but he frankly avows his inability to determine whether Zalmoxis was a god or a man, nor can he extricate himself from a similar embarrassment in respect to Dionysus and Pan. Amidst the confusion of the Homeric fight, the goddess Athens confers upon Diomedes the miraculous favor of dispelling the mist from his eyes, so as to enable him to discriminate gods from men; and nothing less than a similar miracle could enable a critical reader of the mythical narratives to draw an ascertained boundary-line between the two. But the original hearers of the myths felt neither surprise nor displeasure from this confusion of the divine with the human individual. They looked at the past with a film of faith over their eyes —neither knowing the value, nor desiring the attainment, of an unclouded vision. The intimate companionship, and the occasional mistake of identity between gods and men, were in full harmony with their reverential restrospect. And we, accordingly, see the poet Ovid in his Fasti, when he undertakes the task of unfolding the legendary antiquities of early Rome, reacquiring, by the inspiration of Juno, the power of seeing gods and men in immediate vicinity and conjunct action, such as it existed before the development of the critical and historical sense.


To resume, in brief, what has been laid down in this and the preceding chapters respecting the Grecian myths :

1. They are a special product of the imagination and feelings, radically distinct both from history and philosophy : they cannot be broken down and decomposed into the one, nor allegorized into the other. There are indeed some particular and even assignable myths, which raise intrinsic presumption of an allegorizing tendency; and there are doubtless some others, though not specially assignable, which contain portions of matter of fact, or names of real persons, embodied in them. But such matter of fact cannot be verified by any intrinsic mark, nor we are entitled to presume its existence in any given case unless some collateral evidence can be produced.

2. We are not warranted in applying to the mythical world the rules either of historical credibility or chronological sequence. Its personages are gods, heroes, and men, in constant juxtaposition and reciprocal sympathy; men, too, of whom we know a large proportion to be fictitious, and of whom we can never ascertain how many may have been real. No series of such personages can serve as materials for chronological calculation.

3. The myths were originally produced in an age which had no records, no philosophy, no criticism, no canon of belief, and scarcely any tincture either of astronomy or geography—but which, on the other hand, was full of religious faith, distinguished for quick and susceptible imagination, seeing personal agents where we look only for objects and connecting laws;— an age, moreover, eager for new narrative, accepting with the unconscious impressibility of children (the question of truth or falsehood being never formally raised) all which ran in harmony with its preexisting feelings, and penetrable by inspired prophets and poets in the same proportion that it was indifferent to positive evidence. To such hearers did the primitive poet or story-teller address himself: it was the glory of his productive genius to provide suitable narrative expression for the faith and emotions which he shared in common with them, and the rich stock of Grecian myths attests how admirably he performed his task. As the gods and the heroes formed the conspicuous object of national reverence, so the myths were partly divine, partly heroic, partly both in one. The adventures of Achilles, Helen, and Diomedes, of Edipus and Adrastus, of Meleager and Althea, of Jason and the Argo, were recounted by the same tongues, and accepted with the same unsuspecting confidence, as those of Apollo and Artemis, of Ares and Aphrodite, of Poseidon and Heracles.

4. The time however came, when this plausibility ceased to be complete. The Grecian mind made an important advance, socially, ethically, and intellectually. Philosophy and history were constituted, prose writing and chronological records became familiar; a canon of belief more or less critical came to be tacitly recognized. Moreover, superior men profited more largely by the stimulus, and contracted habits of judging different from the vulgar : the god Elenchus (to use a personification of Menander) the giver and prover of truth, descended into their minds. Into the new intellectual medium, thus altered in its elements, and no longer uniform in its quality, the myths descended by inheritance; but they were found, to a certain extent, out of harmony even with the feelings of the people, and altogether dissonant with those of instructed men. But the most superior Greek was still a Greek, and cherished the common reverential sentiment towards the foretime of his country. Though he could neither believe nor respect the myths as they stood, he was under an imperious mental necessity to transform them into a state worthy of his belief and respect. Whilst the literal myth still continued to float among the poets and the people, critical men interpreted, altered, decomposed, and added, until they found something which satisfied their minds as a supposed real basis. They manufactured some dogmas of supposed original philosophy, and a long series of fancied history and chronology, retaining the mythical names and generations even when they were obliged to discard or recast the mythical events. The interpreted myth was thus promoted into a reality, while the literal myth was degraded into a fiction.


The habit of distinguishing the interpreted from the literal myth has passed from the literary men of antiquity to those of the modern world, who have for the most part construed the divine myths as allegorized philosophy, and the heroic myths as exaggerated, adorned, and over-colored history. The early ages of Greece have thus been peopled with quasi-historical persons and quasi-historical events, all extracted from the myths after making certain allowances for poetical ornament. But we must not treat this extracted product as if it were the original substance; we cannot properly understand it except by viewing it in connection with the literal myths out of which it was obtained, in their primitive age and appropriate medium, before the superior minds had yet outgrown the common faith in an all-personified Nature, and learned to restrict the divine free-agency by the supposition of invariable physical laws. It is in this point of view that the myths are important for anyone who would correctly appreciate the general tone of Grecian thought and feeling; for they were the universal mental stock of the Hellenic world—common to men and women, rich and poor, instructed and ignorant; they were in every one's memory and in every one's mouth,1 while science and history were confined to comparatively few. We know from Thucydides how erroneously and carelessly the Athenian public of his day retained the history of Peisistratus, only one century past; but the adventures of the gods and heroes, the numberless explanatory legends attached to visible objects and periodical ceremonies, were the theme of general talk, and any man unacquainted with them would have found himself partially excluded from the sympathy of his neighbors. The theatrical representations, exhibited to the entire city population, and listened to with enthusiastic interest, both presupposed and perpetuated acquaintance with the great lines of heroic fable: indeed, in later times even the pantomimic dancers embraced in their representations the whole field of mythical incident, and their immense success proves at once how popular and how well known such subjects were. The names and attributes of the heroes were incessantly alluded to in the way of illustration, to point out a consoling, admonitory, or repressive moral: the simple mention of any of them sufficed to call up in every one's mind the principal events of his life, and the poet or rhapsode could thus calculate on touching chords not less familiar than susceptible.

A similar effect was produced by the multiplied religious festivals and processions, as well as by the oracles and prophecies which circulated in every city. The annual departure of the Theoric ship from Athens to the sacred island of Delos, kept alive, in the minds of Athenians generally, the legend of Theseus and his adventurous enterprise in Crete; and in like manner most of the other public rites and ceremonies were of a commemorative character, deduced from some mythical person or incident familiarly known to natives, and forming to strangers a portion of the curiosities of the place. During the period of Grecian subjection under the Romans, these curiosities, together with their works of art and their legends, were especially clung to as a set-off against present degradation. The Theban citizen who found himself restrained from the liberty enjoyed by all other Greeks, of consulting Amphiaraus as a prophet, though the sanctuary and chapel of the hero stood in his own city, could not be satisfied without a knowledge of the story which explained the origin of such prohibition, and which conducted him back to the originally hostile relations between Amphiaraus and Thebes. Nor can we suppose among the citizens of Sicyon anything less than a perfect and reverential conception of the legend of Thebes, when we read the account given by Herodotus of the conduct of the despot Kleisthenes in regard to Adrastus and Melanippus. The Troezenian youths and maidens, who universally, when on the eve of marriage, consecrated an offering of their hair at the Hellion of Hippolytus, maintained a lively recollection of the legend of that unhappy recusant whom Aphrodite had so cruelly punished. Abundant relics preserved in many Grecian cities and temples, served both as mementos and attestations of other legendary events; and the tombs of the heroes counted among the most powerful stimulants of mythical reminiscence. The scepter of Pelops and Agamemnon, still preserved in the days of Pausanias at Chaeroneia in Boeotia, was the work of the god Hephaestus. While many other alleged productions of the same divine hand were preserved in different cities of Greece, this is the only one which Pausanias himself believed to be genuine : it had been carried by Elektra, daughter of Agamemnon to Phocis, and received divine honors from the citizens of Chaeronea. The spears of Meriones and Odysseus were treasured up at Engyium in Sicily, that of Achilles at Phaselis; the sword of Memmon adorned the temple of Asklepius at Nicomedia; and Pausanias, with unsuspecting confidence, adduces the two latter as proofs that the arms of the heroes were made of brass. The hide of the Kalydonian boar was guarded and shown by the Tegeates as a precious possession; the shield of Euphorbus was in like manner suspended in the temple of Branchids near Miletus, as well as in the temple of Here in Argos. Visible relics of Epeius and Philoktetes were not wanting, while Strabo raises his voice with indignation against the numerous Palladia which were shown in different cities, each pretending to be the genuine image from Troy. It would be impossible to specify the number of chapels, sanctuaries, solemnities, foundations of one sort or another, said to have been first commenced by heroic or mythical personages,—by Heracles, Jason, Medea, Alkmaeon, Diomedes, Odysseus, Danaus, and his daughters, etc. Perhaps in some of these cases particular critics might raise objections, but the great bulk of the people entertained a firm and undoubted belief in the current legend.

If we analyze the intellectual acquisitions of a common Grecian townsman, from the rude communities of Arcadia or Phocis even up to the enlightened Athens, we shall find that, over and above the rules of art or capacities requisite for his daily wants, it consisted chiefly of the various myths connected with his gens, his city, his religious festivals, and the mysteries in which he might have chosen to initiate himself, as well as with the works of art and the more striking natural objects which he might see around him,—the whole set off and decorated by some knowledge of the epic and dramatic poets. Such was the intellectual and imaginative reach of an ordinary Greek, considered apart from the instructed few : it was an aggregate of religion, of social and patriotic retrospect, and of romantic fancy, blended into one indivisible faith. And thus the subjective value of the myths, looking at them purely as elements of Grecian thought and feeling, will appear indisputably great, however little there may be of objective reality, either historical or philosophical, discoverable under them.

Nor must we omit the incalculable importance of the myths as stimulants to the imagination of the Grecian artist in sculpture, in painting, in carving, and in architecture. From the divine and heroic legends and personages were borrowed those paintings, statues, and reliefs, which rendered the temples, porticos, and public buildings, at Athens and elsewhere, objects of surpassing admiration; and such visible reproduction contributed again to fix the types of the gods and heroes familiarly and indelibly on the public mind. The figures delineated on cups and vases, as well as on the walls of private houses, were chiefly drawn from the same source — the myths being the great storehouse of artistic scenes and composition.

To enlarge on the characteristic excellence of Grecian art would here be out of place. I regard it only in so far as, having originally drawn its materials from the myths, it reacted upon the mythical faith and imagination—the reaction imparting strength to the former as well as distinctness to the latter. To one who saw constantly before him representations of the battles of the Centaurs or the Amazons, of the exploits performed by Perseus and Bellerophon, of the incidents composing the Trojan war or the Kalydonian boar-hunt—the process of belief, even in the more fantastic of these conceptions, became easy in proportion as the conception was familiarized. And if any person had been slow to believe in the efficacy of the prayers of Eakus, whereby that devout hero once obtained special relief from Zeus, at a moment when Greece was perishing with long-continued sterility, his doubts would probably vanish when, on visiting the Eakeium at Egina, there were exhibited to him the statues of the very envoys who had come on the behalf of the distressed Greeks to solicit that Eakus would pray for them. A Grecian temple was not simply a place of worship, but the actual dwelling-place of a god, who was believed to be introduced by the solemn dedicatory ceremony, and whom the imagination of the people identified in the most intimate manner with his statue. The presence or removal of the statue was conceived as identical with that of the being represented,—and while the statue was solemnly washed, dressed, and tended with all the respectful solicitude which would have been bestowed upon a real person, miraculous tales were often rife respecting the manifestation of real internal feeling in the wood and the marble. At perilous or critical moments, the statue was affirmed to have sweated, to have wept, to have closed its eyes, or brandished the spear in its hands, in token of sympathy or indignation. Such legends, springing up usually in times of suffering and danger, and finding few men bold enough openly to contradict them, ran in complete harmony with the general mythical faith, and tended to strengthen it in all its various ramifications. The renewed activity of the god or hero both brought to mind and accredited the preexisting myths connected with his name. When Boreas, during the invasion of Greece by Xerxes, and in compliance with the fervent prayers of the Athenians, had sent forth a providential storm, to the irreparable damage of the Persian armada, the skeptical minority (alluded to by Plato), who doubted the myth of Boreas and Oreithyia, and his close connection thus acquired with Erechtheus, and the Erechtheids generally, must for the time have been reduced to absolute silence.