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The Homeric Hymns A New Prose translation and Essays, Literary and Mythological

Page: 14

Buffoonery, as we have seen, exists in all grades of civilised or savage rites, and was not absent from the popular festivals of the mediæval Church: religion throwing her mantle p. 51over every human field of action, as over Folk Medicine. On these lines I venture to explain what seem to me the strange and repugnant elements of the religion of a people so refined, and so capable of high moral ideas, as the Greeks. Aphrodite is personified desire, but religion did not throw her mantle over desire alone; the cloistered life, the frank charm of maidenhood, were as dear to the Greek genius, and were consecrated by the examples of Athene, Artemis, and Hestia. She presides over the pure element of the fire of the hearth, just as in the household did the daughter of the king or chief. Hers are the first libations at feasts (xxviii. 5), though in Homer they are poured forth to Hermes.

We may explain the Gods of the minor hymns in the same way. Pan, for instance, as the son of Hermes, inherits the wild, frolicsome, rural aspect of his character. The Dioscuri answer to the Vedic Asvins, twin rescuers of men in danger on land or sea: perhaps the Evening and Morning Star. p. 52 Dionysus is another aspect of the joy of life and of the world and the vintaging. Moon and Sun, Selene and Helios, appear as quite distinct from Artemis and Apollo; Gæa, the Earth, is equally distinct from Demeter. The Hymn to Ares is quite un-Homeric in character, and is oddly conceived in the spirit of the Scottish poltroon, who cries to his friend, “Haud me, haud me, or I’ll fecht!” The war-god is implored to moderate the martial eagerness of the poet. The original collector here showed lack of discrimination. At no time, however, was Ares a popular God in Greece; in Homer he is a braggart and coward. p. 53

THE HYMN TO DEMETER

The beautiful Hymn to Demeter, an example of Greek religious faith in its most pensive and most romantic aspects, was found in the last century (1780), in Moscow. Inter pullos et porcos latitabat: the song of the rural deity had found its way into the haunts of the humble creatures whom she protected. A discovery even more fortunate, in 1857, led Sir Charles Newton to a little sacellum, or family chapel, near Cnidos. On a platform of rock, beneath a cliff, and looking to the Mediterranean, were the ruins of the ancient shrine: the votive offerings; the lamps long without oil or flame; the Curses, or Diræ, inscribed on thin sheets of lead, and directed against thieves or rivals. The head of the statue, itself already known, was also discovered. Votive offerings, cheap curses, p. 54objects of folk-lore rite and of sympathetic magic,—these are connected with the popular, the peasant aspect of the religion of Demeter. She it is to whom pigs are sacrificed: who makes the fields fertile with scattered fragments of their flesh; and her rustic effigy, at Theocritus’s feast of the harvest home, stands smiling, with corn and poppies in her hands.

Mourning <strong><a href=Demeter. Marble statue from Knidos. In the British Museum" src="images/lang54s.jpg" />

But the Cnidian shrine had once another treasure, the beautiful melancholy statue of the seated Demeter of the uplifted eyes; the mourning mother: the weary seeker for the lost maiden: her child Persephone. Far from the ruins above the sea, beneath the scorched seaward wall of rock: far from the aromatic fragrance of the rock-nourished flowers, from the bees, and the playful lizards, Demeter now occupies her place in the great halls of the British Museum. Like the Hymn, this melancholy and tender work of art is imperfect, but the sentiment is thereby rather increased than impaired. The ancients buried things broken with the dead, p. 55that the shadows of tool, or weapon, or vase might be set free, to serve the shadows of their masters in the land of the souls. Broken as they, too, are, the Hymn and the statue are “free among the dead,” and eloquent of the higher religion that, in Greece, attached itself to the lost Maiden and the sorrowing Mother. Demeter, in religion, was more than a fertiliser of the fields: Korê, the Maiden, was more than the buried pig, or the seed sown to await its resurrection; or the harvest idol, fashioned of corn-stalks: more even than a symbol of the winter sleep and vernal awakening of the year and the life of nature. She became the “dread Persephone” of the Odyssey,


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