Bulfinch's Mythology The Age of Fable

Page: 191

All the theories which have bene mentioned are true to a certain extent. It would therefore be more correct to say that the mythology of a nation has sprung from all these sources combined than from any one in particular. We may add also that there are many myths which have risen from the desire of man to account for those natural phenomena which he cannot understand; and not a few have had their rise from a similar desire of giving a reason for the names of places and persons.


Adequately to represent to the eye the ideas intended to be conveyed to the mind under the several names of deities, was a task which called into exercise the highest powers of genius and art. Of the many attempts FOUR have been most celebrated, the first two known to us only by the descriptions of the ancients, and by copies on gems, which are still preserved; the other two still extant and the acknowledged masterpieces of the sculptor's art.


The statue of the Olympian Jupiter by Phidias was considered the highest achievement of this department of Grecian art. It was of colossal dimensions, and was what the ancients called "chryselephantine;" that is, composed of ivory and gold; the parts representing flesh being of ivory laid on a core of wood or stone, while the drapery and other ornaments were of gold. The height of the figure was forty feet, on a pedestal twelve feet high. The god was represented seated on this throne. His brows were crowned with a wreath of olive, and he held in his right hand a sceptre, and in his left a statue of Victory. The throne was of cedar, adorned with gold and precious stones.

The idea which the artist essayed to embody was that of the supreme deity of the Hellenic (Grecian) nation, enthroned as a conqueror, in perfect majesty and repose, and ruling with a nod the subject world. Phidias avowed that he took his idea from the representation which Homer gives in the first book of the Iliad, in the passage thus translated by Pope:

  "He spoke and awful bends his sable brows,
  Shakes his ambrosial curls and gives the nod,
  The stamp of fate and sanction of the god.
  High heaven with reverence the dread signal took,
  A nd all Olympus to the centre shook."

(Cowper's version is less elegant, but truer to the original.

  "He ceased, and under his dark brows the nod
  Vouchsafed of confirmation. All around
  The sovereign's everlasting head his curls
  Ambrosial shook, and the huge mountain reeled."

It may interest our readers to see how this passage appears in another famous version, that which was issued under the name of Tickell, contemporaneously with Pope's, and which, being by many attributed to Addison, led to the quarrel which ensued between Addison and Pope.

  "This said, his kingly brow the sire inclined;
  The large black curls fell awful from behind,
  Thick shadowing the stern forehead of the god;
  Olympus trembled at the almighty nod.")