Religion of The Greeks and Romans: Classic Mythology – Beacon Lights of History, Volume I : The Old Pagan Civilizations by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume I, The Old Pagan Civilizations by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume I : The Old Pagan Civilizations

Ancient Religions: Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian
Religions of India: Brahmanism and Buddhism
Religion of The Greeks and Romans: Classic Mythology
Confucius: Sage and Moralist
Ancient Philosophy: Seeking After Truth
Socrates: Greek Philosophy
Phidias: Greek Art
Literary Genius: The Greek and Roman Classics

Beacon Lights of History, Volume I : The Old Pagan Civilizations
John Lord

Topics Covered
Religion of the Greeks and Romans
Greek myths
Greek priests
Greek divinities
Greek polytheism
Greek mythology
Adoption of Oriental fables
Greek deities the creation of poets
Peculiarities of the Greek gods
The Olympian deities
The minor deities
The Greeks indifferent to a future state
Augustine view of heathen deities
Artists vie with poets in conceptions of divine
Temple of Zeus in Olympia
Greek festivals
No sacred books among the Greeks
A religion without deities
Roman divinities
Peculiarities of Roman worship
Ritualism and hypocrisy
Character of the Roman

Religion of The Greeks and Romans: Classic Mythology

Religion among the lively and imaginative Greeks took a different form from that of the Aryan race in India or Persia. However the ideas of their divinities originated in their relations to the thought and life of the people, their gods were neither abstractions nor symbols. They were simply men and women, immortal, yet having a beginning, with passions and appetites like ordinary mortals. They love, they hate, they eat, they drink, they have adventures and misfortunes like men,–only differing from men in the superiority of their gifts, in their miraculous endowments, in their stupendous feats, in their more than gigantic size, in their supernal beauty, in their intensified pleasures. It was not their aim “to raise mortals to the skies,” but to enjoy themselves in feasting and love-making; not even to govern the world, but to protect their particular worshippers,–taking part and interest in human quarrels, without reference to justice or right, and without communicating any great truths for the guidance of mankind.

The religion of Greece consisted of a series of myths,–creations for the most part of the poets,–and therefore properly called a mythology. Yet in some respects the gods of Greece resembled those of Phoenicia and Egypt, being the powers of Nature, and named after the sun, moon, and planets. Their priests did not form a sacerdotal caste, as in India and Egypt; they were more like officers of the state, to perform certain functions or duties pertaining to rites, ceremonies, and sacrifices. They taught no moral or spiritual truths to the people, nor were they held in extraordinary reverence. They were not ascetics or enthusiasts; among them were no great reformers or prophets, as among the sacerdotal class of the Jews or the Hindus. They had even no sacred books, and claimed no esoteric knowledge. Nor was their office hereditary. They were appointed by the rulers of the state, or elected by the people themselves; they imposed no restraints on the conscience, and apparently cared little for morals, leaving the people to an unbounded freedom to act and think for themselves, so far as they did not interfere with prescribed usages and laws. The real objects of Greek worship were beauty, grace, and heroic strength. The people worshipped no supreme creator, no providential governor, no ultimate judge of human actions. They had no aspirations for heaven and no fear of hell. They did not feel accountable for their deeds or thoughts or words to an irresistible Power working for righteousness or truth. They had no religious sense, apart from wonder or admiration of the glories of Nature, or the good or evil which might result from the favor or hatred of the divinities they accepted.

These divinities, moreover, were not manifestations of supreme power and intelligence, but were creations of the fancy, as they came from popular legends, or the brains of poets, or the hands of artists, or the speculations of philosophers. And as everything in Greece was beautiful and radiant,–the sea, the sky, the mountains, and the valleys,–so was religion cheerful, seen in all the festivals which took the place of the Sabbaths and holy-days of more spiritually minded peoples. The worshippers of the gods danced and played and sported to the sounds of musical instruments, and revelled in joyous libations, in feasts and imposing processions,–in whatever would amuse the mind or intoxicate the senses. The gods were rather unseen companions in pleasures, in sports, in athletic contests and warlike enterprises, than beings to be adored for moral excellence or supernal knowledge. “Heaven was so near at hand that their own heroes climbed to it and became demigods.” Every grove, every fountain, every river, every beautiful spot, had its presiding deity; while every wonder of Nature,–the sun, the moon, the stars, the tempest, the thunder, the lightning,–was impersonated as an awful power for good or evil. To them temples were erected, within which were their shrines and images in human shape, glistening with gold and gems, and wrought in every form of grace or strength or beauty, and by artists of marvellous excellence.

This polytheism of Greece was exceedingly complicated, but was not so degrading as that of Egypt, since the gods were not represented by the forms of hideous animals, and the worship of them was not attended by revolting ceremonies; and yet it was divested of all spiritual aspirations, and had but little effect on personal struggles for truth or holiness. It was human and worldly, not lofty nor even reverential, except among the few who had deep religious wants. One of its characteristic features was the acknowledged impotence of the gods to secure future happiness. In fact, the future was generally ignored, and even immortality was but a dream of philosophers. Men lived not in view of future rewards and punishments, or future existence at all, but for the enjoyment of the present; and the gods themselves set the example of an immoral life. Even Zeus, “the Father of gods and men,” to whom absolute supremacy was ascribed, the work of creation, and all majesty and serenity, took but little interest in human affairs, and lived on Olympian heights like a sovereign surrounded with the instruments of his will, freely indulging in those pleasures which all lofty moral codes have forbidden, and taking part in the quarrels, jealousies, and enmities of his divine associates.

Greek mythology had its source in the legends of a remote antiquity,–probably among the Pelasgians, the early inhabitants of Greece, which they brought with them in their migration from their original settlement, or perhaps from Egypt and Phoenicia. Herodotus–and he is not often wrong–ascribes a great part of the mythology which the Greek poets elaborated to a Phoenician or Egyptian source. The legends have also some similarity to the poetic creations of the ancient Persians, who delighted in fairies and genii and extravagant exploits, like the labors of Hercules The faults and foibles of deified mortals were transmitted to posterity and incorporated with the attributes of the supreme divinity, and hence the mixture of the mighty and the mean which marks the characters of the Iliad and Odyssey. The Greeks adopted Oriental fables, and accommodated them to those heroes who figured in their own country in the earliest times. “The labors of Hercules originated in Egypt, and relate to the annual progress of the sun in the zodiac. The rape of Proserpine, the wanderings of Ceres, the Eleusinian mysteries, and the orgies of Bacchus were all imported from Egypt or Phoenicia, while the wars between the gods and the giants were celebrated in the romantic annals of Persia. The oracle of Dodona was copied from that of Ammon in Thebes, and the oracle of Apollo at Delphos has a similar source.”

Behind the Oriental legends which form the basis of Grecian mythology there was, in all probability, in those ancient times before the Pelasgians were known as Ionians and the Hellenes as Dorians, a mystical and indefinite idea of supreme power,–as among the Persians, the Hindus, and the esoteric priests of Egypt. In all the ancient religions the farther back we go the purer and loftier do we find the popular religion. Belief in supreme deity underlies all the Eastern theogonies, which belief, however, was soon perverted or lost sight of. There is great difference of opinion among philosophers as to the origin of myths,–whether they began in fable and came to be regarded as history, or began as human history and were poetized into fable. My belief is that in the earliest ages of the world there were no mythologies. Fables were the creations of those who sought to amuse or control the people, who have ever delighted in the marvellous. As the magnificent, the vast, the sublime, which was seen in Nature, impressed itself on the imagination of the Orientals and ended in legends, so did allegory in process of time multiply fictions and fables to an indefinite extent; and what were symbols among Eastern nations became impersonations in the poetry of Greece. Grecian mythology was a vast system of impersonated forces, beginning with the legends of heroes and ending with the personification of the faculties of the mind and the manifestations of Nature, in deities who presided over festivals, cities, groves, and mountains, with all the infirmities of human nature, and without calling out exalted sentiments of love or reverence. They are all creations of the imagination, invested with human traits and adapted to the genius of the people, who were far from being religious in the sense that the Hindus and Egyptians were. It was the natural and not the supernatural that filled their souls. It was art they worshipped, and not the God who created the heavens and the earth, and who exacts of his creatures obedience and faith.

In regard to the gods and goddesses of the Grecian Pantheon, we observe that most of them were immoral; at least they had the usual infirmities of men. They are thus represented by the poets, probably to please the people, who like all other peoples had to make their own conceptions of God; for even a miraculous revelation of deity must be interpreted by those who receive it, according to their own understanding of the qualities revealed. The ancient Romans, themselves stern, earnest, practical, had an almost Oriental reverence for their gods, so that their Jupiter (Father of Heaven) was a majestic, powerful, all-seeing, severely just national deity, regarded by them much as the Jehovah of the Hebrews was by that nation. When in later times the conquest of Eastern countries and of Macedon and Greece brought in luxury, works of art, foreign literature, and all the delightful but enervating influences of aestheticism, the Romans became corrupted, and gradually began to identify their own more noble deities with the beautiful but unprincipled, self-indulgent, and tricky set of gods and goddesses of the Greek mythology.

The Greek Zeus, with whom were associated majesty and dominion, and who reigned supreme in the celestial hierarchy,–who as the chief god of the skies, the god of storms, ruler of the atmosphere, was the favorite deity of the Aryan race, the Indra of the Hindus, the Jupiter of the Romans,–was in his Grecian presentment a rebellious son, a faithless husband, and sometimes an unkind father. His character was a combination of weakness and strength,–anything but a pattern to be imitated, or even to be reverenced. He was the impersonation of power and dignity, represented by the poets as having such immense strength that if he had hold of one end of a chain, and all the gods held the other, with the earth fastened to it, he would be able to move them all.

Poseidon (Roman Neptune), the brother of Zeus, was represented as the god of the ocean, and was worshipped chiefly in maritime States. His morality was no higher than that of Zeus; moreover, he was rough, boisterous, and vindictive. He was hostile to Troy, and yet persecuted Ulysses.

Apollo, the next great personage of the Olympian divinities, was more respectable morally than his father. He was the sun-god of the Greeks, and was the embodiment of divine prescience, of healing skill, of musical and poetical productiveness, and hence the favorite of the poets. He had a form of ideal beauty, grace, and vigor, inspired by unerring wisdom and insight into futurity. He was obedient to the will of Zeus, to whom he was not much inferior in power. Temples were erected to this favorite deity in every part of Greece, and he was supposed to deliver oracular responses in several cities, especially at Delphos.

Hephaestus (Roman Vulcan), the god of fire, was a sort of jester at the Olympian court, and provoked perpetual laughter from his awkwardness and lameness. He forged the thunderbolts for Zeus, and was the armorer of heaven. It accorded with the grim humor of the poets to make this clumsy blacksmith the husband of Aphrodite, the queen of beauty and of love.

Ares (Roman Mars), the god of war, was represented as cruel, lawless, and greedy of blood, and as occupying a subordinate position, receiving orders from Apollo and Athene.

Hermes (Roman Mercury) was the impersonation of commercial dealings, and of course was full of tricks and thievery,–the Olympian man of business, industrious, inventive, untruthful, and dishonest. He was also the god of eloquence.

Besides these six great male divinities there were six goddesses, the most important of whom was Hera (Roman Juno), wife of Zeus, and hence the Queen of Heaven. She exercised her husband’s prerogatives, and thundered and shook Olympus; but she was proud, vindictive, jealous, unscrupulous, and cruel,–a poor model for women to imitate. The Greek poets, however, had a poor opinion of the female sex, and hence represent this deity without those elements of character which we most admire in woman,–gentleness, softness, tenderness, and patience. She scolded her august husband so perpetually that he gave way to complaints before the assembled deities, and that too with a bitterness hardly to be reconciled with our notions of dignity. The Roman Juno, before the identification of the two goddesses, was a nobler character, being the queen of heaven, the protectress of virgins and of matrons, and was also the celestial housewife of the nation, watching over its revenues and its expenses. She was the especial goddess of chastity, and loose women were forbidden to touch her altars.

Athene (Roman Minerva) however, the goddess of wisdom, had a character without a flaw, and ranked with Apollo in wisdom. She even expostulated with Zeus himself when he was wrong. But on the other hand she had few attractive feminine qualities, and no amiable weaknesses.

Artemis (Roman Diana) was “a shadowy divinity, a pale reflection of her brother Apollo.” She presided over the pleasures of the chase, in which the Greeks delighted,–a masculine female who took but little interest in anything intellectual.

Aphrodite (Roman Venus) was the impersonation of all that was weak and erring in the nature of woman,–the goddess of sensual desire, of mere physical beauty, silly, childish, and vain, utterly odious in a moral point of view, and mentally contemptible. This goddess was represented as exerting a great influence even when despised, fascinating yet revolting, admired and yet corrupting. She was not of much importance among the Romans,–who were far from being sentimental or passionate,–until the growth of the legend of their Trojan origin. Then, as mother of Aeneas, their progenitor, she took a high rank, and the Greek poets furnished her character.

Hestia (Roman Vesta) presided over the private hearths and homesteads of the Greeks, and imparted to them a sacred character. Her personality was vague, but she represented the purity which among both Greeks and Romans is attached to home and domestic life.

Demeter (Roman Ceres) represented Mother Earth, and thus was closely associated with agriculture and all operations of tillage and bread-making. As agriculture is the primitive and most important of all human vocations, this deity presided over civilization and law-giving, and occupied an important position in the Eleusinian mysteries.

These were the twelve Olympian divinities, or greater gods; but they represent only a small part of the Grecian Pantheon. There was Dionysus (Roman Bacchus), the god of drunkenness. This deity presided over vineyards, and his worship was attended with disgraceful orgies,–with wild dances, noisy revels, exciting music, and frenzied demonstrations.

Leto (Roman Latona), another wife of Zeus, and mother of Apollo and Diana, was a very different personage from Hera, being the impersonation of all those womanly qualities which are valued in woman,–silent, unobtrusive, condescending, chaste, kindly, ready to help and tend, and subordinating herself to her children.

Persephone (Roman Proserpina) was the queen of the dead, ruling the infernal realm even more distinctly than her husband Pluto, severely pure as she was awful and terrible; but there were no temples erected to her, as the Greeks did not trouble themselves much about the future state.

The minor deities of the Greeks were innumerable, and were identified with every separate thing which occupied their thoughts,–with mountains, rivers, capes, towns, fountains, rocks; with domestic animals, with monsters of the deep, with demons and departed heroes, with water-nymphs and wood-nymphs, with the qualities of mind and attributes of the body; with sleep and death, old age and pain, strife and victory; with hunger, grief, ridicule, wisdom, deceit, grace; with night and day, the hours, the thunder the rainbow,—in short, all the wonders of Nature, all the affections of the soul, and all the qualities of the mind; everything they saw, everything they talked about, everything they felt. All these wonders and sentiments they impersonated; and these impersonations were supposed to preside over the things they represented, and to a certain extent were worshipped. If a man wished the winds to be propitious, he prayed to Zeus; if he wished to be prospered in his bargains, he invoked Hermes; if he wished to be successful in war, he prayed to Ares.

He never prayed to a supreme and eternal deity, but to some special manifestation of deity, fancied or real; and hence his religion was essentially pantheistic, though outwardly polytheistic. The divinities whom he invoked he celebrated with rites corresponding with those traits which they represented. Thus, Aphrodite was celebrated with lascivious dances, and Dionysus with drunken revels. Each deity represented the Grecian ideal,–of majesty or grace or beauty or strength or virtue or wisdom or madness or folly. The character of Hera was what the poets supposed should be the attributes of the Queen of heaven; that of Leto, what should distinguish a disinterested housewife; that of Hestia, what should mark the guardian of the fireside; that of Demeter, what should show supreme benevolence and thrift; that of Athene, what would naturally be associated with wisdom, and that of Aphrodite, what would be expected from a sensual beauty. In the main, Zeus was serene, majestic, and benignant, as became the king of the gods, although he was occasionally faithless to his wife; Poseidon was boisterous, as became the monarch of the seas; Apollo was a devoted son and a bright companion, which one would expect in a gifted poet and wise prophet, beautiful and graceful as a sun-god should be; Hephaestus, the god of fire and smiths, showed naturally the awkwardness to which manual labor leads; Ares was cruel and bloodthirsty, as the god of war should be; Hermes, as the god of trade and business, would of course be sharp and tricky; and Dionysus, the father of the vine, would naturally become noisy and rollicking in his intoxication.

Thus, whatever defects are associated with the principal deities, these are all natural and consistent with the characters they represent, or the duties and business in which they engage. Drunkenness is not associated with Zeus, or unchastity with Hera or Athene. The poets make each deity consistent with himself, and in harmony with the interests he represents. Hence the mythology of the poets is elaborate and interesting. Who has not devoured the classical dictionary before he has learned to scan the lines of Homer or of Virgil? As varied and romantic as the “Arabian Nights,” it shines in the beauty of nature. In the Grecian creations of gods and goddesses there is no insult to the understanding, because these creations are in harmony with Nature, are consistent with humanity. There is no hatred and no love, no jealousy and no fear, which has not a natural cause. The poets proved themselves to be great artists in the very characters they gave to their divinities. They did not aim to excite reverence or stimulate to duty or point out the higher life, but to amuse a worldly, pleasure-seeking, good-natured, joyous, art-loving, poetic people, who lived in the present and for themselves alone.

As a future state of rewards and punishments seldom entered into the minds of the Greeks, so the gods are never represented as conferring future salvation. The welfare of the soul was rarely thought of where there was no settled belief in immortality. The gods themselves were fed on nectar and ambrosia, that they might not die like ordinary mortals. They might prolong their own existence indefinitely, but they were impotent to confer eternal life upon their worshippers; and as eternal life is essential to perfect happiness, they could not confer even happiness in its highest sense.

On this fact Saint Augustine erected the grand fabric of his theological system. In his most celebrated work, “The City of God,” he holds up to derision the gods of antiquity, and with blended logic and irony makes them contemptible as objects of worship, since they were impotent to save the soul. In his view the grand and distinguishing feature of Christianity, in contrast with Paganism, is the gift of eternal life and happiness. It is not the morality which Christ and his Apostles taught, which gave to Christianity its immeasurable superiority over all other religions, but the promise of a future felicity in heaven. And it was this promise which gave such comfort to the miserable people of the old Pagan world, ground down by oppression, injustice, cruelty, and poverty. It was this promise which filled the converts to Christianity with joy, enthusiasm, and hope,–yea, more than this, even boundless love that salvation was the gift of God through the self-sacrifice of Christ. Immortality was brought to light by the gospel alone, and to miserable people the idea of eternal bliss after the trials of mortal life were passed was the source of immeasurable joy. No sooner was this sublime expectation of happiness planted firmly in the minds of pagans, than they threw their idols to the moles and the bats.

But even in regard to morality, Augustine showed that the gods were no examples to follow. He ridicules their morals and their offices as severely as he points out their impotency to bestow happiness. He shows the absurdity and inconsistency of tolerating players in their delineation of the vices and follies of deities for the amusement of the people in the theatre, while the priests performed the same obscenities as religious rites in the temples which were upheld by the State; so that philosophers like Varro could pour contempt on players with impunity, while he dared not ridicule priests for doing in the temples the same things. No wonder that the popular religion at last was held in contempt by philosophers, since it was not only impotent to save, but did not stimulate to ordinary morality, to virtue, or to lofty sentiments. A religion which was held sacred in one place and ridiculed in another, before the eyes of the same people, could not in the end but yield to what was better.

If we ascribe to the poets the creation of the elaborate mythology of the Greeks,–that is, a system of gods made by men, rather than men made by gods,–whether as symbols or objects of worship, whether the religion was pantheistic or idolatrous, we find that artists even surpassed the poets in their conceptions of divine power, goodness, and beauty, and thus riveted the chains which the poets forged.

The temple of Zeus at Olympia in Elis, where the intellect and the culture of Greece assembled every four years to witness the games instituted in honor of the Father of the gods, was itself calculated to impose on the senses of the worshippers by its grandeur and beauty. The image of the god himself, sixty feet high, made of ivory, gold, and gems by the greatest of all the sculptors of antiquity, must have impressed spectators with ideas of strength and majesty even more than any poetical descriptions could do. If it was art which the Greeks worshipped rather than an unseen deity who controlled their destinies, and to whom supreme homage was due, how nobly did the image before them represent the highest conceptions of the attributes to be ascribed to the King of Heaven! Seated on his throne, with the emblems of sovereignty in his hands and attendant deities around him, his head, neck, breast, and arms in massive proportions, and his face expressive of majesty and sweetness, power in repose, benevolence blended with strength,–the image of the Olympian deity conveyed to the minds of his worshippers everything that could inspire awe, wonder, and goodness, as well as power. No fear was blended with admiration, since his favor could be won by the magnificent rites and ceremonies which were instituted in his honor.

Clarke alludes to the sculptured Apollo Belvedere as giving a still more elevated idea of the sun-god than the poets themselves,–a figure expressive of the highest thoughts of the Hellenic mind,–and quotes Milman in support of his admiration:–

“All, all divine! no struggling muscle glows,
Through heaving vein no mantling life-blood flows;
But, animate with deity alone,
In deathless glory lives the breathing stone.”

If a Christian poet can see divinity in the chiselled stone, why should we wonder at the worship of art by the pagan Greeks? The same could be said of the statues of Artemis, of Pallas-Athene, of Aphrodite, and other “divine” productions of Grecian artists, since they represented the highest ideal the world has seen of beauty, grace, loveliness, and majesty, which the Greeks adored. Hence, though the statues of the gods are in human shape, it was not men that the Greeks worshipped, but those qualities of mind and those forms of beauty to which the cultivated intellect instinctively gave the highest praise. No one can object to this boundless admiration which the Greeks had for art in its highest forms, in so far as that admiration became worship. It was the divorce of art from morals which called out the indignation and censure of the Christian fathers, and even undermined the religion of philosophers so far as it had been directed to the worship of the popular deities, which were simply creations of poets and artists.

It is difficult to conceive how the worship of the gods could have been kept up for so long a time, had it not been for the festivals. This wise provision for providing interest and recreation for the people was also availed of by the Mosaic ritual among the Hebrews, and has been a part of most well-organized religious systems. The festivals were celebrated in honor not merely of deities, but of useful inventions, of the seasons of the year, of great national victories,–all which were religious in the pagan sense, and constituted the highest pleasures of Grecian life. They were observed with great pomp and splendor in the open air in front of temples, in sacred groves, wherever the people could conveniently assemble to join in jocund dances, in athletic sports, and whatever could animate the soul with festivity and joy. Hence the religious worship of the Greeks was cheerful, and adapted itself to the tastes and pleasures of the people; it was, however, essentially worldly, and sometimes degrading. It was similar in its effects to the rural sports of the yeomanry of the Middle Ages, and to the theatrical representations sometimes held in mediaeval churches,–certainly to the processions and pomps which the Catholic clergy instituted for the amusement of the people. Hence the sneering but acute remark of Gibbon, that all religions were equally true to the people, equally false to philosophers, and equally useful to rulers. The State encouraged and paid for sacrifices, rites, processions, and scenic dances on the same principle that they gave corn to the people to make them contented in their miseries, and severely punished those who ridiculed the popular religion when it was performed in temples, even though it winked at the ridicule of the same performances in the theatres.

Among the Greeks there were no sacred books like the Hindu Vedas or Hebrew Scriptures, in which the people could learn duties and religious truths. The priests taught nothing; they merely officiated at rites and ceremonies. It is difficult to find out what were the means and forms of religious instruction, so far as pertained to the heart and conscience. Duties were certainly not learned from the ministers of religion. From what source did the people learn the necessity of obedience to parents, of conjugal fidelity, of truthfulness, of chastity, of honesty? It is difficult to tell. The poets and artists taught ideas of beauty, of grace, of strength; and Nature in her grandeur and loveliness taught the same things. Hence a severe taste was cultivated, which excluded vulgarity and grossness in the intercourse of life. It was the rule to be courteous, affable, gentlemanly, for all this was in harmony with the severity of art. The comic poets ridiculed pretension, arrogance, quackery, and lies. Patriotism, which was learned from the dangers of the State, amid warlike and unscrupulous neighbors, called out many manly virtues, like courage, fortitude, heroism, and self-sacrifice. A hard and rocky soil necessitated industry, thrift, and severe punishment on those who stole the fruits of labor, even as miners in the Rocky Mountains sacredly abstain from appropriating the gold of their fellow-laborers. Self-interest and self-preservation dictated many laws which secured the welfare of society. The natural sacredness of home guarded the virtue of wives and children; the natural sense of justice raised indignation against cheating and tricks in trade. Men and women cannot live together in peace and safety without observing certain conditions, which may be ranked with virtues even among savages and barbarians,–much more so in cultivated and refined communities.

The graces and amenities of life can exist without reference to future rewards and punishments. The ultimate law of self-preservation will protect men in ordinary times against murder and violence, and will lead to public and social enactments which bad men fear to violate. A traveller ordinarily feels as safe in a highly-civilized pagan community as in a Christian city. The “heathen Chinee” fears the officers of the law as much as does a citizen of London.

The great difference between a Pagan and a Christian people is in the power of conscience, in the sense of a moral accountability to a spiritual Deity, in the hopes or fears of a future state,–motives which have a powerful influence on the elevation of individual character and the development of higher types of social organization. But whatever laws are necessary for the maintenance of order, the repression of violence, of crimes against person and the State and the general material welfare of society, are found in Pagan as well as in Christian States; and the natural affections,–of paternal and filial love, friendship, patriotism, generosity, etc.,–while strengthened by Christianity, are also an inalienable part of the God-given heritage of all mankind. We see many heroic traits, many manly virtues, many domestic amenities, and many exalted sentiments in pagan Greece, even if these were not taught by priests or sages. Every man instinctively clings to life, to property, to home, to parents, to wife and children; and hence these are guarded in every community, and the violation of these rights is ever punished with greater or less severity for the sake of general security and public welfare, even if there be no belief in God. Religion, loftily considered, has but little to do with the temporal interests of men. Governments and laws take these under their protection, and it is men who make governments and laws. They are made from the instinct of self-preservation, from patriotic aspirations, from the necessities of civilization. Religion, from the Christian standpoint, is unworldly, having reference to the life which is to come, to the enlightenment of the conscience, to restraint from sins not punishable by the laws, and to the inspiration of virtues which have no worldly reward.

This kind of religion was not taught by Grecian priests or poets or artists, and did not exist in Greece, with all its refinements and glories, until partially communicated by those philosophers who meditated on the secrets of Nature, the mighty mysteries of life, and the duties which reason and reflection reveal. And it may be noticed that the philosophers themselves, who began with speculations on the origin of the universe, the nature of the gods, the operations of the mind, and the laws of matter, ended at last with ethical inquiries and injunctions. We see this illustrated in Socrates and Zeno. They seemed to despair of finding out God, of explaining the wonders of his universe, and came down to practical life in its sad realities,–like Solomon himself when he said, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” In ethical teachings and inquiries some of these philosophers reached a height almost equal to that which Christian sages aspired to climb; and had the world practised the virtues which they taught, there would scarcely have been need of a new revelation, so far as the observance of rules to promote happiness on earth is concerned. But these Pagan sages did not hold out hopes beyond the grave. They even doubted whether the soul was mortal or immortal. They did teach many ennobling and lofty truths for the enlightenment of thinkers; but they held out no divine help, nor any hope of completing in a future life the failures of this one; and hence they failed in saving society from a persistent degradation, and in elevating ordinary men to those glorious heights reached by the Christian converts.

That was the point to which Augustine directed his vast genius and his unrivalled logic. He admitted that arts might civilize, and that the elaborate mythology which he ridiculed was interesting to the people, and was, as a creation of the poets, ingenious and beautiful; but he showed that it did not reveal a future state, that it did not promise eternal happiness, that it did not restrain men from those sins which human laws could not punish, and that it did not exalt the soul to lofty communion with the Deity, or kindle a truly spiritual life, and therefore was worthless as a religion, imbecile to save, and only to be classed with those myths which delight an ignorant or sensuous people, and with those rites which are shrouded in mystery and gloom. Nor did he, in his matchless argument against the gods of Greece and Rome, take for his attack those deities whose rites were most degrading and senseless, and which the thinking world despised, but the most lofty forms of pagan religion, such as were accepted by moralists and philosophers like Seneca and Plato. And thus he reached the intelligence of the age, and gave a final blow to all the gods of antiquity.

It would be instructive to show that the religion of Greece, as embraced by the people, did not prevent or even condemn those social evils that are the greatest blot on enlightened civilization. It did not discourage slavery, the direst evil which ever afflicted humanity; it did not elevate woman to her true position at home or in public; it ridiculed those passive virtues that are declared and commended in the Sermon on the Mount; it did not pronounce against the wickedness of war, or the vanity of military glory; it did not dignify home, or the virtues of the family circle; it did not declare the folly of riches, or show that the love of money is a root of all evil. It made sensual pleasure and outward prosperity the great aims of successful ambition, and hid with an impenetrable screen from the eyes of men the fatal results of a worldly life, so that suicide itself came to be viewed as a justifiable way to avoid evils that are hard to be borne; in short, it was a religion which, though joyous, was without hope, and with innumerable deities was without God in the world,–which was no religion at all, but a fable, a delusion, and a superstition, as Paul argued before the assembled intellect of the most fastidious and cultivated city of the world.

And yet we see among those who worshipped the gods of Greece a sense of dependence on supernatural power; and this dependence stands out, both in the Iliad and the Odyssey, among the boldest heroes. They seem to be reverential to the powers above them, however indefinite their views. In the best ages of Greece the worship of the various deities was sincere and universal, and was attended with sacrifices to propitiate favor or avert their displeasure.

It does not appear that these sacrifices were always offered by priests. Warriors, kings, and heroes themselves sacrificed oxen, sheep, and goats, and poured out libations to the gods. Homer’s heroes were very strenuous in the exercise of these duties; and they generally traced their calamities and misfortunes to the neglect of sacrifices, which was a great offence to the deities, from Zeus down to inferior gods. We read, too, that the gods were supplicated in fervent prayer. There was universally felt, in earlier times, a need of divine protection. If the gods did not confer eternal life, they conferred, it was supposed, temporal and worldly good. People prayed for the same blessings that the ancient Jews sought from Jehovah. In this sense the early Greeks were religious. Irreverence toward the gods was extremely rare. The people, however, did not pray for divine guidance in the discharge of duty, but for the blessings which would give them health and prosperity. We seldom see a proud self-reliance even among the heroes of the Iliad, but great solicitude to secure aid from the deities they worshipped.

The religion of the Romans differed in some respects from that of the Greeks, inasmuch as it was emphatically a state religion. It was more of a ritual and a ceremony. It included most of the deities of the Greek Pantheon, but was more comprehensive. It accepted the gods of all the nations that composed the empire, and placed them in the Pantheon,–even Mithra, the Persian sun-god, and the Isis and Osiris of the Egyptians, to whom sacrifices were made by those who worshipped them at home. It was also a purer mythology, and rejected many of the blasphemous myths concerning the loves and quarrels of the Grecian deities. It was more practical and less poetical. Every Roman god had something to do, some useful office to perform. Several divinities presided over the birth and nursing of an infant, and they were worshipped for some fancied good, for the benefits which they were supposed to bestow. There was an elaborate “division of labor” among them. A divinity presided over bakers, another over ovens,–every vocation and every household transaction had its presiding deities.

There were more superstitious rites practised by the Romans than by the Greeks,–such as examining the entrails of beasts and birds for good or bad omens. Great attention was given to dreams and rites of divination. The Roman household gods were of great account, since there was a more defined and general worship of ancestors than among the Greeks. These were the Penates, or familiar household gods, the guardians of the home, whose fire on the sacred hearth was perpetually burning, and to whom every meal was esteemed a sacrifice. These included a Lar, or ancestral family divinity, in each house. There were Vestal virgins to guard the most sacred places. There was a college of pontiffs to regulate worship and perform the higher ceremonies, which were complicated and minute. The pontiffs were presided over by one called Pontifex Maximus,–a title shrewdly assumed by Caesar to gain control of the popular worship, and still surviving in the title of the Pope of Rome with his college of cardinals. There were augurs and haruspices to discover the will of the gods, according to entrails and the flight of birds.

The festivals were more numerous in Rome than in Greece, and perhaps were more piously observed. About one day in four was set apart for the worship of particular gods, celebrated by feasts and games and sacrifices. The principal feast days were in honor of Janus, the great god of the Sabines, the god of beginnings, celebrated on the first of January, to which month he gave his name; also the feasts in honor of the Penates, of Mars, of Vesta, of Minerva, of Venus, of Ceres, of Juno, of Jupiter, and of Saturn. The Saturnalia, December 19, in honor of Saturn, the annual Thanksgiving, lasted seven days, when the rich kept open house and slaves had their liberty,–the most joyous of the festivals. The feast of Minerva lasted five days, when offerings were made by all mechanics, artists, and scholars. The feast of Cybele, analogous to that of Ceres in Greece and Isis in Egypt, lasted six days. These various feasts imposed great contributions on the people, and were managed by the pontiffs with the most minute observances and legalities.

Apollo Belvedere From a photograph of the statue in the Vatican, Rome

The principal Roman divinities were the Olympic gods under Latin names, like Jupiter, Juno, Mars, Minerva, Neptune, Vesta, Apollo, Venus, Ceres, and Diana; but the secondary deities were almost innumerable. Some of the deities were of Etruscan, some of Sabine, and some of Latin origin; but most of them were imported from Greece or corresponded with those of the Greek mythology. Many were manufactured by the pontiffs for utilitarian purposes, and were mere abstractions, like Hope, Fear, Concord, Justice, Clemency, etc., to which temples were erected. The powers of Nature were also worshipped, like the sun, the moon, and stars. The best side of Roman life was represented in the worship of Vesta, who presided over the household fire and home, and was associated with the Lares and Penates. Of these household gods the head of the family was the officiating minister who offered prayers and sacrifices. The Vestal virgins received especial honor, and were appointed by the Pontifex Maximus.

Thus the Romans accounted themselves very religious, and doubtless are to be so accounted, certainly in the same sense as were the Athenians by the Apostle Paul, since altars, statues, and temples in honor of gods were everywhere present to the eye, and rites and ceremonies were most systematically and mechanically observed according to strict rules laid down by the pontiffs. They were grave and decorous in their devotions, and seemed anxious to learn from their augurs and haruspices the will of the gods; and their funeral ceremonies were held with great pomp and ceremony. As faith in the gods declined, ceremonies and pomps were multiplied, and the ice of ritualism accumulated on the banks of piety. Superstition and unbelief went hand in hand. Worship in the temples was most imposing when the amours and follies of the gods were most ridiculed in the theatres; and as the State was rigorous in its religious observances, hypocrisy became the vice of the most prominent and influential citizens. What sincerity was there in Julius Caesar when he discharged the duties of high-priest of the Republic? It was impossible for an educated Roman who read Plato and Zeno to believe in Janus and Juno. It was all very well for the people so to believe, he said, who must be kept in order; but scepticism increased in the higher classes until the prevailing atheism culminated in the poetry of Lucretius, who had the boldness to declare that faith in the gods had been the curse of the human race.

If the Romans were more devoted to mere external and ritualistic services than the Greeks,–more outwardly religious,–they were also more hypocritical. If they were not professed freethinkers,–for the State did not tolerate opposition or ridicule of those things which it instituted or patronized,–religion had but little practical effect on their lives. The Romans were more immoral yet more observant of religious ceremonies than the Greeks, who acted and thought as they pleased. Intellectual independence was not one of the characteristics of the Roman citizen. He professed to think as the State prescribed, for the masters of the world were the slaves of the State in religion as in war. The Romans were more gross in their vices as they were more pharisaical in their profession than the Greeks, whom they conquered and imitated. Neither the sincere worship of ancestors, nor the ceremonies and rites which they observed in honor of their innumerable divinities, softened the severity of their character, or weakened their passion for war and bloody sports. Their hard and rigid wills were rarely moved by the cries of agony or the shrieks of despair. Their slavery was more cruel than among any nation of antiquity. Butchery and legalized murder were the delight of Romans in their conquering days, as were inhuman sports in the days of their political decline. Where was the spirit of religion, as it was even in India and Egypt, when women were debased; when every man and woman held a human being in cruel bondage; when home was abandoned for the circus and the amphitheatre; when the cry of the mourner was unheard in shouts of victory; when women sold themselves as wives to those who would pay the highest price, and men abstained from marriage unless they could fatten on rich dowries; when utility was the spring of every action, and demoralizing pleasure was the universal pursuit; when feastings and banquets were riotous and expensive, and violence and rapine were restrained only by the strong arm of law dictated by instincts of self-preservation? Where was the ennobling influence of the gods, when nobody of any position finally believed in them? How powerless the gods, when the general depravity was so glaring as to call out the terrible invective of Paul, the cosmopolitan traveller, the shrewd observer, the pure-hearted Christian missionary, indicting not a few, but a whole people: “Who exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, … being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity; whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, without understanding, covenant-breakers, without natural affections, unmerciful.” An awful picture, but sustained by the evidence of the Roman writers of that day as certainly no worse than the hideous reality.

If this was the outcome of the most exquisitely poetical and art-inspiring mythology the world has ever known, what wonder that the pure spirituality of Jesus the Christ, shining into that blackness of darkness, should have been hailed by perishing millions as the “light of the world”!


Rawlinson’s Religions of the Ancient World; Grote’s History of Greece; Thirlwall’s History of Greece; Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey; Max Müller’s Chips from a German Workshop; Curtius’s History of Greece; Mr. Gladstone’s Homer and the Homeric Age; Rawlinson’s Herodotus; Döllinger’s Jew and Gentile; Fenton’s Lectures on Ancient and Modern Greece; Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Mythology; Clarke’s Ten Great Religions; Dwight’s Mythology; Saint Augustine’s City of God.

Confucius: Sage and Moralist

Beacon Lights of History, Volume I : The Old Pagan Civilizations