« PreviousContinue »
poetry between the periods of Homer and Pindar, he proceeds to connect it with what may seem to be a strange cause,-the worship of the infernal gods. It would appear that the too great levity and sportiveness of Greek religion, which indulged itself in ascribing every human frailty to the deities of Olympus and of the upper air, was usefully tempered by the more sombre colors in which they invested the invisible king of the shades. In that lower region resided the stern judges who called mortal actions to account, and punished the wicked in eternal night, but sent the good as Pindar tells) to inhabit the islands of the blessed. These infernal gods alone were worshipped in the secret systems called mysteries by the Greeks; and the physiological speculation concerning the yearly renewal of vegetation by the goddess Ceres, was turned to yield support (according to our author) to a belief in the successive and perpetual renewal of each man's life. The Greeks generally appear not to have conceived of our future immortality as an unbroken eternal period,-a single life to be lived by each individual; but rather as an eternal succession of lives; whether by a transmigration into fresh bodies of men and brutes, or in a divine, that is, a superhuman state. Of the songs of Pindar for the dead, only a few short fragments exist : but the professor regards them as proving indisputably that the doctrine of immortality was so inculcated in the Mysteries, as to inspire the
most elevating and animating hopes with regard to the con'dition of the soul after death,
But all the Mysteries of Greece were too secret and awful to influence literature generally : a poet might fear to be accused of publishing them, which happened to Æschylus. On the other hand, there was a society of persons who performed the rites of a mystical worship, who were not exclusively attached 'to a particular temple and festival, and who did not confine 'their notions to the initiated, but published them to others,
and committed them to literary works.' These were the followers of the ancient mythical poet Orpheus. Most of their legends referred to the god Bacchus, who had scarcely any point of character attributed to him in common with the vulgar story of the same god. Theirs was an infernal deity, a personification of rapturous pleasure and deep mourning. His worshippers aimed at an ascetic purity of life and manners. After once tasting the raw flesh from the ox consecrated to him, they ate no more animal food; and, like oriental and Egyptian priests, wore white linen garments. They taught that through Bacchus, the son of Zeus, who had endured shocking atrocities from the Titans, but was destined by Zeus for the throne of heaven, they were to obtain at last an end of strife, a holy peace, when the soul was liberated from its imprisonment in the body.
Orphic opinions are traced by our author even in the poetry of Hesiod. They were accompanied with an improvement likewise in the notions concerning the Olympian gods. Men were shocked to think of Jupiter, as at enmity with his father Saturn and the elder gods called Titans; and the opinion won its way not only that all these were released from the lower dungeons of Tartarus, but that Saturn, the god of the golden age, reigns in the secret islands over the souls of the blessed. Such is the state in which the doctrine appears in Pindar, but it is probably much older.
About the period of the Persian war, the Pythagorean order in Italy had been persecuted and scattered in a political contest upon the triumph of democracy in their cities. The remnant of them united themselves to the Orphic associations, not, as would seem, through any close agreement of doctrine, but from love of (what we might call) a conventual life, and perhaps from sympathy in that which had a religious and unearthly spirit. The genuine extant legends of the Orphic school given by Professor Müller are too long to extract here; but we cannot refrain from translating the Orphic verses quoted in the treatise on the World erroneously attributed to Aristotle : · Zeus, god of the swift thunderbolt, was first, and Zeus was last; Zeus the head, Zeus the middle: out of Zeus all things have been
made. Zeus is the foundation of the earth and of the starry heaven : Zeus became a male, Zeus too was an immortal nymph. Zeus is the breath of all things, Zeus is the rush of unwearied fire : Zeus is the root of the ocean, Zeus is the sun and moon. Zeus is king, Zeus is governor of all, by his swift thunderbolt. For after hiding all things, again to the gladdening light He restored them from his sacred heart, achieving wonderful deeds.'
This sounds like an elevated Pantheism; and the two last lines appear to teach the destruction and renewal of life, in a perpetual series; for the words may be understood, conformably to Greek usage, he is accustomed to restore them.' In the Orphic poets, says Professor Müller, 'we first meet with the
idea of a creation. While the earlier Greeks considered the world as an organic being, ever growing towards greater perfection, these conceived it as 'formed by the Deity out of pre
existing matter, and upon a predetermined plan. Hence the universe was called by them metaphorically, a bowl, and a gown (crater and peplos); as mixed of various ingredients, and woven of different colored threads. Thus, as our author remarks, juster views were with difficulty evolved from the
notions of a sacerdotal fanaticism;' and they confined themselves to refine and rationalize the traditional mythology, long 'before they ventured to explore the paths of independent inquiry.'
During the same centuries, a literature of opposite nature was growing up in the islands of Greece. The celebrated Lesbian poet Alcæus, and his not less famous countrywoman Sappho, first exhibited the power and variety of the lyrical ode: but their remains are too scanty to enable us to form an independent judgment of their merit. The very strange controversies which later times agitated concerning Lesbian purity, appear to transport us into the sphere of a different human nature. Our Professor sedately defends the character of Sappho, and it is indeed pleasing to think that so much can be said in her favor. We pass to Anacreon, the effeminate poet of a tyrant's court; whose elegance and perfection of style ensured him universal admiration among the luxurious Ionians. Very inferior indeed in power is he to the Æolian lyric poets, who excelled in the description of vehement passions : but his beauties can be judged of by all; theirs must appear extravagantly overcharged to all but their countrymen and contemporaries. Ibycus, Stesichorus, and other poets of this age, are passed in review by our author. But whatever literary judgment be formed on the productions of the Æolian and Ionian lyre, our own belief is, that they were a vehicle of corruption to the Greeks, the more subtle for their great beauty. Not such, however, was Simonides, as we may judge from the style of encomium passed on him by Plato, as well as by the fragments which we have : again, not such was Pindar. "In the latter we see the haughty and gorgeous poet of aristocratic and monarchal principle; in the former, the tranquil, unostentatious, graceful, and often tender depicter of human feeling in every rank: yet both of them appear to have labored zealously towards a good end,—the elevation of moral sentiment. It is worthy of notice, that the name of Simonides was proverbial among the ancients for the vice of avarice; an imputation incurred by his being the first who claimed definite prices for his compositions. This agrees with the other evidence, that he was quite a professional man, a perfect master of his art, in which he displayed wonderful versatility, but not affecting to write by impulse as an inspired bard.
Our summary has reached the era when Æschylus began to exhibit his sublime tragedies; but we have too lately enlarged on his peculiar merits, to make it desirable that we should take up this subject anew. Only let it be steadily remembered, that the Athenian drama was a religious festival, recurring at distant intervals, and attended by the entire city without paying for admittance;-in short, that it was to them, what the Easter mass in the cathedral of St. Peter at Rome may be to the population of that city:-and then we may guess at the quality
and extent of its influence. It appears to be generally agreed among the learned, that Sophocles chastised the crudeness of Æschylus's taste, without destroying his moral features : and even if personally we desired to qualify this opinion, we must bow to the prevailing judgment. It is also proved beyond question, that Euripides did in many points vulgarize his art (of which Professor Müller brings an accumulation of illustration); and that as a poet, the third great tragedian does not stand so high as his predecessors. But we think that the admirers of Plato deal rather hard measure to Euripides, in their criticisms on his moralizing speeches. He often ascribes to his characters sophistical reasonings, it is certain; and so too does Plato : perhaps both liked to display their skill on each side of an argument. But when he speaks as if from his own heart, he displays, as we think, much truth and tenderness. The prevailing style of criticism is the stranger, because it is certain that the ancients conceived the closest alliance to subsist between the tragedies of Euripides and the discourses of Socrates. It was pretended by some, that Socrates had himself composed many remarkable passages ; and the virulent Aristophanes uniformly attacks the two characters as identical. Yet the modern idolaters of Plato assail Euripides with something like contempt. The tragedian altered the legends as he pleased ! no great sin in a man who was enlightened enough to disbelieve them, and with whom they were only a vehicle of poetry, not a form of religion. Indeed it is evident that, like Socrates, he desired to unteach his people a very large part of these fables. We should like to illustrate our remark at large; but we venture only upon two quotations.
1. Iphig. in Tauris, v. 380—
• I blame these fanciful refinements of the goddess;
2. Hippol. 190—
· All life of man is painful,
But why did corruption so fearful overspread Greece, when she had evidently displayed a living principle growing up? An essay might hardly suffice to exhaust that subject : briefly we will say, we believe the causes were political, and had their root in the system which depressed the country for the aggrandizement of the towns. This system was at its height, where the country was entirely cultivated by slaves; but generally, in Greece as in more modern Italy, the towns were supreme, and the country people were, politically, as nothing. Now the latter are the ballast of the ship of state: the Greek vessels carried too much sail, and were generally capsized.—The wise Solon forbade his subjects to remain neutral in a sedition. Alas, the great thing needed in Greek party-feuds, was the interference, at the crisis of victory, of a neutral body, which should enforce moderation on the victors. The merciless violence of these contests, in which the pettiness of local strife was armed with the sovereign power, proved a source of demoralization too deadly to resist. Neither the best literature, nor even a divine religion, can repair the loss of the love of country in entire communities. After this, individuals may be enlightened and excellent, but the mass becomes incurably bad.
But we have been long. This work of Professor Müller's cannot be judged of by detached quotations. It is like a production of Greek art, a symmetrical whole, where profound learning, refined and experienced taste, elegant composition, have combined with that sober judgment, which is attained only by long acquaintance with the topic treated, and a leisurely digestion of his own reflections. Such a book is a phenomenon in England, and the more remarkable from the circumstances under which it is published. Its circulation needs not to be confined to classical scholars ; for if the unlearned will omit whatever they find to be too technical, the remainder will well repay their study.