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Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome

Page: 96

These structures were, in the first instance, of the most simple form, and without decoration; but when, with the progress of civilization, the Greeks became a [189]wealthy and powerful people, temples were built and adorned with the greatest splendour and magnificence, talent, labour, and wealth being lavished unsparingly on their erection and decoration; indeed so massively were they constructed, that some of them have, to a certain extent, withstood the ravages of time. The city of Athens especially contains numerous remains of these buildings of antiquity. On the Acropolis we may still behold, among other monuments of ancient art, the temple of Athene-Polias, and that of Theseus, the latter of which is the most entire ancient edifice in the world. In the island of Delos, also, are to be seen the ruins of the temples of Apollo and Artemis, both of which are in a wonderful state of preservation. These ruins are most valuable, being sufficiently complete to enable us to study, by their aid, the plan and character of the original structure.

Among the Lacedæmonians, however, we find no vestiges of these stately temples, for they were specially enjoined by a law of Lycurgus to serve the gods with as little outlay as possible. When the great lawgiver was asked the reason of this injunction, he replied that the Lacedæmonians, being a poor nation, might otherwise abstain altogether from the observance of their religious duties, and wisely added that magnificent edifices and costly sacrifices were not so pleasing to the gods, as the true piety and unfeigned devotion of their worshippers.

The most ancient temples known to us served a double purpose: they were not only consecrated to the service of the gods, but were at the same time venerable monuments in honour of the dead. Thus, for instance, the temple of Pallas-Athene, in the tower of the city of Larissa, served as the sepulchre of Acrisius, and the Acropolis at Athens received the ashes of Cecrops, founder of the city.

A temple was frequently dedicated to two or more gods, and was always built after the manner considered most acceptable to the particular divinities to whom it was consecrated; for just as trees, birds, and animals of [190]every description were held to be sacred to certain deities, so almost every god had a form of building peculiar to himself, which was deemed more acceptable to him than any other. Thus the Doric style of architecture was sacred to Zeus, Ares, and Heracles; the Ionic to Apollo, Artemis, and Dionysus; and the Corinthian to Hestia.

In the porch of the temple stood a vessel of stone or brass, containing holy water (which had been consecrated by putting into it a burning torch, taken from the altar), with which all those admitted to take part in the sacrifices were besprinkled. In the inmost recess of the sanctuary was the most holy place, into which none but the priests were suffered to enter.

Temples in the country were usually surrounded with groves of trees. The solitude of these shady retreats naturally tended to inspire the worshipper with awe and reverence, added to which the delightful shade and coolness afforded by tall leafy trees is peculiarly grateful in hot countries. Indeed so general did this custom of building temples in groves become, that all places devoted to sacred purposes, even where no trees existed, were called groves. That this practice must be of very remote antiquity is proved by the Biblical injunction, having for its object the separation of the Jews from all idolatrous practices: "Thou shalt not plant thee a grove of trees near unto the altar of the Lord thy God."


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