Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Greek Paganism, Six Centuries Before The Birth Of Jesus Christ

"The sixth century [B.C.], in which Aeschylus passed his early years, was one of great stir and movement in matters of religion and speculation. The old theogonies of Homer and Hesiod, with their primitive morality and simple conception of the gods, had long since failed to satisfy the higher minds among the nation. The prevalence of deeper aspirations and a more searching curiosity is proved by many symptoms...

"The work which Aeschylus set himself to perform, as a moral teacher, was to reconcile the popular religion with the more advanced conceptions of his time, by purifying its grossness and harmonizing its various inconsistencies. In this attempt he was more successful than might have been expected. The primitive legends, remodelled and reilluminated by his genius, acquire ... an unwonted grandeur and impressiveness. But the task was one of insuperable difficulty. The old Greek mythology, with its medley of beauties and monstrosities, and of graceful fancies and coarse brutalities, hardly admitted of being systemized into a perfect whole. It was impossible, therefore, that Aeschylus, in endeavouring to accomplish this result, should avoid occasional incongruities, or that the scheme expounded in his writings should be complete and symmetrical in all its parts. Few, however, will deny that in his hands the religion of the Greeks has been raised to a higher level of moral dignity than it ever attained either before or since.

"The first point to be noticed, in regard to his religious views, is the sublime conception of Zeus as the supreme ruler of the universe. The other deities are represented as merely the ministers of his will, and though still possessing their usual characteristics, stand in subordinate rank. The language applied to Zeus is monotheistic in tone, and his praises are chanted in strains of the loftiest exaltation. He is "king of kings, most blessed of the blessed, most mighty of rulers." His power "knows no superior, nor is any one enthroned above him; swifter than speech is the accomplishment of his purpose." He "holds for ever the balance of the scales: nothing comes to mortal man but by the will of Zeus." "Zeus is sky, and earth, and heaven; Zeus is all things, yea, greater than all things." His power, though invisible, is omnipotent and omnipresent. "Dark and shadowy," it is said, "are the pathways of his counsels, and difficult to see. From their high-towering hopes he hurleth down to destruction the race of men. Yet setteth he no forces in array, all his works are effortless. Seated on holiest throne, from thence, unknown to us, he bringeth his will to pass."

"This noble conception of Zeus, it cannot be denied, is scarcely consistent with the character which he bears in Greek mythology, or with the actions which he sometimes performs even in Aeschylus himself...

"Zeus, then, in the conception of Aeschylus, is the ruler of all created things. But he is not a capricious monarch, swayed by casual passions, like the Zeus of Homer. To act with injustice is impossible to him; he is "constrained" never to assist transgressors. There is a universal law of justice, a moral ordinance governing the whole world, to which even he must submit. This law is called by different names -- Fate, Destiny, Justice, Necessity; but under these various terms the same all-embracing rule is denoted, as many passages will prove. Thus Fate is said to "whet the blade of Justice"; Destiny "forges for Justice her sword"; the Fates "guide the helm of Necessity." The special instruments by which, in the case of the more heinous offences, this law of strict justice is enforced are the Furies, the daughters of the Night. These dread goddesses of the underworld, in whom the spirit of vengeance is personified, derive their functions from Fate; whence they are called, in mythical fashion, the sisters of the Fates. Their mission is to pursue criminals, and crush them with misery and misfortune. Their aspect is loathsome and horrible, so as to strike terror into the guilty soul."

--from The Tragic Drama of the Greeks. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896. pp. 86-96.

The entire essay is online, and well worth a read.

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