The Greek Myths

William Harris, Prof. Em. Middlebury College

Chapter 10: Religion

There are many things which can best be studied as chapters in the history of religious rites and rituals, although they cross over into other matters, such as the connections between the developing Greek society and the more ancient Near East, which were discussed in Chapter 9. In this section some of the pertinent material is reviewed, although some of it has previously been discussed in other places, to which reference is given for the fuller treatment.

Orpheus is the first Greek master of poetry, the poet-singer who accompanied the Argonauts as bard in residence, since there were no written records that could be made to document such a significant expedition. Then there is the story of his wife Eurydice, who died from snakebite, and was almost recovered by Orpheus from Hades had he not "looked back", and so lost her forever. Orpheus was finally torn apart by raving Maenads because of an interference in their rites, which recalls Pentheus' death in Euripedes' treatment of the Bacchic rites.. Orpheus is regarded as the founder of the mystery rites, which spread throughout Greece by the sixth century B.C., and became the real religion of the country as the cults of the Olympians became formalized and finally restricted to the state-religions. The role of the Mysteries is hard to define since much of their ritual was secret, and at a later date information about them was suppressed by Roman and Christian alike, but we do know that the Mysteries proliferated and dominated Hellas spiritually for more than a millennium, and were the most effective mass religious cult in the Greco-Roman world.

If we think of Orpheus as patron saint of poetry and song, we miss the deeper implications which his role possessed. The poet is the one person in a primitive society who has direct access to the mesmerizing pulses of rhythmic wording, song and dance; with these aids he can (seem to) accomplish almost anything. Such a man can record the deeds and feats of famous men many years dead, and this is his basic historical bardic function. When he calls up memory of persons long dead, or transfers the hearer to a far distant place which he has never seen, he raises people to a level of intensity and vivification which they later will refer to as "stepping out of one's body", the exact meaning of the Greek word "ecstasy".

Since by his poetry he can collapse time and space,, ensures living memory for the living, who will soon be joining "the many, as the Greeks mysteriously refer to those who have passed over. He even symbolically overcomes Death. Transferring the symbolic to the real, he can seem to bring back the dead from Hades, but in his own quest for his wife Eurydice, this fatal flaw emerges. As long as he "thinks" of her, he can "bring her back" in his own mind and recreate her, but when he actually turns around and looks, the mental image dissolves and she disappears. The detail about "looking back" is found elsewhere, in the history of Lot's wife, and in the Pythagorean Symbola, which imply that looking back is the core of distraction (neurosis), and must be strictly avoided. The Orphic person did not see fit to draw a line of distinction between what he "makes appear " by his art, and what actually "is". To us, living as we do in a world of hard factuality, this seems an error; but it is the kind of error which bring man into contact with the spiritual forces of the world, or more precisely, the spiritual forces in his own being.

The immense power of the poet, who works by trance like states of auto-hypnosis, is the earliest stage of mind-conversion. But as soon as the cult of Dionysos appears, since it gets similar results but more quickly by intoxicating use of wine, tension and rivalry between the two systems is bound to arise. (The modern analog would be achieving enlightenment by contemplation, in the manner of the Indic tradition, as against "instant enlightenment" by use of drugs in the manner of the pharmacagogues of the l960's.) Therefore it is not surprising that in the myth Orpheus is torn apart by Bacchic maenads, not because of an supposed intrusion into the privacy of their ritual, but because he represents the old guard of ecstatic ritual which operates with spiritual ecstasy, and his cult must be eradicated as the wine-based spiritual enlightenment of Dionysos proceeds. (In exactly the same manner the nascent drug-enlightenment cults in this country in the l960's tended to be strongly opposed to the "old guard" religious beliefs.)

But the rivalry between the Spirit and the Wine Cult can work in the other direction. Revolving about a central figure called Dionysos Zagreus, Orphic ritual featured tearing in pieces an animal who represented Dionysos, probably originally as a way of symbolizing the destruction of the rival cult, but later as a hysterical release promising purification and absolution. Killing of the animal probably involves consolidation of the group's guilt on a disposable beast, the black sheep or guilt-goat of the Old Testament. Christ's remarkable development of the Orphic myth is that he takes the role of shouldering guilt upon himself, as his followers saw it. Since Orphism was considered a lower-class, popular cult in the last centuries before Christ, some popular influence from it may have infiltrated Jesus' own working-class following.

Dionysos, also called Bacchos and known by various other ritual names, is supposed to have been a Thracian deity, but he is not listed in the Homeric cycle of divinities, and is generally thought to have come from the East.. The seventh Homeric Hymn tells the story of his miraculous apparition to the pirates who were abducting him in the Adriatic Sea. One of his names, Lyaios, would seem to come from the verb 'lu-' which means "loosen, let loose" and this function, performed with the drinking of wine, with ecstatic dancing and flagellation with the 'thyrsos', a rod with a sharp pine-cone tied to the tip, is central to his role. Accompanied by men and women who are in various states of self-induced trance like hyper-activity, he provides for large numbers of men and especially for women an emotional release from emotional repression through his psychologically liberating services. Similar release mechanisms under the name of religion and dance are found in many parts of the world, but the rule of Dionysos seems especially needed in Greece because of the tight hold with which the intellectual processes of organized thought, often called the Apollonian mind, controlled society at large. Intellectuals in the Greek upper classes were not likely to be moved by prophets with the ring of ecstasy like Dionysos, yet even such a lofty moralist as Sophocles had apparently entered the Dionysiac cult. The Bacchai of Euripedes is a magnificent portrayal of the Bacchic mentality, staged vis a vis the cool and rational mind-set of the arch-doubter Pentheus, who must pay for his doubt with his life.

All this seems so near to what Jung has isolated as the world of the unconscious mind, that modern readers are likely to see in Dionysos the genuine precursor of Jungian thought. Exactly what all this means in terms of Greek society is not clear, the ancients were not aware of distinctions among parts of the mind, and Socrates is an isolated instance of one man identifying something like the Freudian superego in his doctrine of the 'daimon'. Yet the Dionysian cults, widespread and popular as they were for century upon century, must have touched something central to human consciousness. Eliciting parallels with Jung's thought in the last analysis does no harm, especially if taken lightly. Things which are similar in different cultures may not be identical, it is only when we try to press our identities too hard that we get into trouble.

The Dryads are female deities associated with trees, each Dryad or Hamadryad exists in relationship to an individual tree, and is respected and venerated as the life force of that tree. The concept of the life of trees is religious and holy. The name Dryad is derived from Gr. 'drus', "an oak tree", and the word in the same linguistic format appears in the term Druid, a Celtic priest related to trees, but with other political and administrative overtones which were developed in the historical period.

In Greek and Latin the tree names may be masculine in form, but are always considered feminine in gender; this is partly owing to their composite and all-embracing nature, which is felt to be female in scope. But there is also a feeling for generative femaleness in trees as the ancients see them. The important thing to note is that at a time when people venerate trees and endow them with female divinity, they have not yet arrived at a stage of civilization at which trees are seen primarily as wood and lumber. After this change of attitude has occurred, Aristotle can speak of 'hyle" ("wood") as the basic material for constructing the world, i.e. "matter", and the Romans can use the term 'materies" for "matter, or building material" as such. (American lumber yards are still sometimes called Material Companies, since they participate in the same mechanistic tradition.) Wood as a construction material, especially as it becomes costly and valuable, is different in nature from wood growing from the live root, from trees as biological miracles of design and evolution, which are suitable homes for deities of spiritual importance. The myths about Dryads must antedate the growth of mega-societies, which soon learn to use trees merely as a source for wood.

The carbon dating records show that most of Europe was lightly burned over around 6000 B.C., presumably as a way of clearing land for development of the newly emerging grains. Pollen from before this burning shows the usual distribution of diversified European forestation, pollen from a later date points to restricted tree growth and expanding grain fields. A rough date for the period of the Dryad myths can be placed in this period.

Commercialism in harvesting wood as timber is a constant danger to expanding societies, since they see things only in consideration of their uses, trees mean for them nothing more than building materials. Japan at the present time retains much of its ancient reverence for trees, so the Japanese import lumber from every country which has forests, thereby decimating the world's wood supply, while somewhat perversely preserving its old religiosity towards living trees! The Romans has stripped most of Italy of tree by the time of Augustus, and retained isolated stands of ancient trees as a formal reminder of the old religion which respected growing groves. Primitive peoples are much more sensitive!

There may be an entirely different explanation for the belief in spirits of the trees which stems from a perceptual process in the human mind. Leonardo Da Vinci remarked in his notebooks long ago that if one stares long enough at an old moss-covered stone wall, he will see scenes of battle with men and horses and cannon, or anything else that the mind suggests. Foliage in the forests, as well as the gnarled barks of ancient tree trunks present just this sort of randomized, intricate patterning. If one stares long enough at bark or branches with leaves, and mildly mesmerizes himself, he will see faces emerging. Exactly what faces emerge, and what they will mean to him, are dependent on the coaching which his society has employed in his early education, if the society is religious, a religious aspect can easily be cast over forms that the mind sifts from abstract pattern. If one looks out of the window at evening time, and sees a human face in the forest, it is probably easier in terms of the reasonableness of the explanation, to assume that the old man of the forest was really there, looking in through the window, and that when seen, he suddenly disappeared. (The modern, educated explanation, that minds pick out non-reality-related patterns from random displays, and invest them with values inculcated by both the society and the individual personality of the viewer, consciously monitoring these displays as "tricks of the mind", is much more complicated and if it seems more rational us today, it would certainly be incomprehensible to the most imaginative persons in a primitive society.)From such a base we can understand the development of a habit of seeing "faces in the forest", investing them with individual identity and spiritual vitality, and then venerating them as discrete religious entities. This would be fortuitously fortunate as a point of view, since the world of biological growth is really remarkable and spiritual, well worth admiration and spiritual respect.

The Satyrs are known as semi-divine creatures of the woods and hills, the attendants of Dionysos. They are generally connected with lust, sex and fertility, thought of as partly human in form, but with a horse's tail, with goat's feet and at times goat's horns. It may well be that these beings are the things which one sees in a nightmarish dream after an evening of heavy eating and drinking, but it is also possible that the Satyrs represent chimpanzees seen flightingly and at a distance in heavily wooded habitats. If this were so, it would accord with Dionysos' origins in the East, perhaps as far south a southern India where monkeys are still found, although chimpanzees are now associated with Western Africa. Add to this the confused tales about Troglodytes or "cave-dwellers", whose descriptions in ancient sources vary widely. In some accounts they seem remarkably like the cattle-devoted African Masai of the present time, in others they are scarcely human savages, but in any case Troglodytes seen at a distance may have provided part of the material for concocting the existence of "Satyrs". Nothing conclusive can be said at the present time, but the portrayal of beings which partake of human and animal elements does fit an unaccustomed viewer's general impression of the chimp: Ears and hands are virtually human, eyes are near the human location, teeth are similar although the prognathism is pronounced. From here on the differences take over, the chimp lurches and bumps along on the ground supporting himself on his knuckles as he runs, the body is covered with hair, and the intelligence, although clearly above that of other mammals, is both like and unlike human behavior. Satyrs and chimps can both be both taken as travesties of men, this would be enough to flesh out their role in the Greek mythic tradition.

The important point to remember is that this unlikely creature, whatever his identity, is associated with the soft, sensitive and highly human Dionysos. Their ancillary position cannot possibly be based on function, but it may point to a common geographic origin for acolyte and leader.

Speaking of man-animal mixtures, a word must be inserted about the perennially interesting subject of werewolves. The story of Lycaon who offered human flesh to Zeus and was either killed by him or turned into a wolf, is the Greek locus classicus for the myth, but this story is really more like the cannibalism of Pelops and the house of Atreus than to lycanthropy as such. By the time of Petronius in the early Empire, we have a short story of werewolvery, which has most of the characteristic details developed in Europe in the next two millennia. In Europe the wolf is the favorite exchange-beast, but in other parts of the world other animals, almost always carnivores, are employed. For example, in Bengal it is not surprisingly the man turns into a tiger.

There exists a condition of psychological pathology in which the patient feels he has become an animal, he thinks and acts accordingly, even with mimetic sounds and gait. This would seem to be a suitable origin for the werewolf story, with automatic confession of the patient generating the quasi-factual myth. It is also possible that retarded persons who have been rejected by society, may have managed somehow to exist in nature when the climate was not too forbidding. These, seen fleetingly, would strike the viewer as something between man and animal; if the person were male and unshorn, the hairiness of the wolf would be seen. If the interpretation verged toward Satyrs, the creature would be classified as semi-divine, but if the humanness predominated, actual change of a quondam man into the beast would be assumed. Werewolves often were supposed to change at the time of full moon, this would be the very time when a wild-man would be out hunting, aided by available moonlight.

One must also consider possible response to whatever moon-effects, presumably gravitational field changes, may contribute to human behavior. Doctors in large city hospitals know that at full moon time there are more accidents in the emergency room, and they will admit with some professional embarrassment that more staff is generally assigned for these days. The tides, the moonlight, the menstrual cycle of women, and a general time keeping effect in the living world are all associated with the moon. Into this powerful crossroad of forces, the werewolf story has been injected by the restless improvisation of human imagination.

It is easy to imagine the shock a restless man, awake and wandering in the moonlight, might feel upon seeing a woods-living human being who screams and rushes away into the forest. Add to this the confessions of men and women who admit that they have been animals, and you have all the basic ingredients necessary for generating lycanthropic tales.

There are strange and disguised stories in Greek mythology which deal with cannibalism, often in a deic situation but without indicating a religious cannibalistic ritual of the sort we find in some cultures. The most interesting thing about Pelops is his early childhood experience. He was killed by his father Tantalos, and his flesh was served to the gods to see if they could distinguish between human and animal meat. They all detected the human aroma except the vegetation goddess Demeter, who ate part of the shoulder before she found of what it was. Somehow restored to life, but missing a part of his shoulder, Pelops got a new one made of ivory, the first prosthetic limb in the West, and his father Tantalos was duly punished in Hades by a torment which deprived him of what he most craved: food..

Cannibalism is clearly the issue, someone in prehistoric Greece was consuming human flesh, and since the story has high social impact, it is mirrored down through the ages in the stories which congregate about the "bloody house of (his descendant) Atreus". But the original cannibalism was possibly real, perhaps a ritual part of prehistoric, barbaric pre-Hellenic social behavior. In parts of the world where cannibalism has been observed by anthropologists, it has been remarked that it has a strictly ritual character, and is practiced either on the enemy in order to imbibe their power, or on family members so that their vital force will not dissipate. It is worth noting that the flesh that is eaten in Greek cannibalistic myths is always from family members. Whatever the meaning of the Pelops story, it clearly points to ingestion of human flesh, and this must bring it back to a very early date, presumably before the time of civilizing Near Eastern social influences.

Of Atreus and his bloody house, little can be added to the list of horrors which the Greeks knew so well. Perhaps at a remote period, eastern peoples who came into contact with less advanced European peoples, saw the western barbarians as meat-eating savages, at times verging on cannibalism in their ceremonial festivities. Cannibalism, except in the rare instances when it is employed to preserve starving people from dying, is usually (as Malinowski pointed out many years ago) a religious and ritual process. If this happened, then the stories about cannibalism would stem from an Eastern tradition, or from eastern peoples who were immigrating into Crete and the lands of Greece proper. We might then consider the possibility of some myths, such as the cannibalism myth we have been discussing, being constructed by peoples with Eastern origins or at least Eastern connections, but the subject material of the myths would be drawn from the substratum of the native population, who are the earlier inhabitants of Europe. It has been suggested that the name Atreus was in Hittite Attarisayas, king of the Ahhiyava (possible the Achaeans?). If this were correct to any degree, it might suggest that the history of the bloody house of Atreus was mythologized somewhere in Eastern Asia Minor by the advanced and civilized Hittites, who would be good candidates for the Eastern myth-carriers we have been hypothesizing.

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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College