Chapter XX. The Temples and Gods of Athens.
181. Certain Factors in Athenian Religion. - We have seen the Athenians in their business and in their pleasure, at their courts, their assemblies, their military musters, and on their peaceful farms; yet one great side of Athenian life has been almost ignored - the religious side. A "Day in Athens" spent without taking account of the gods of the city and their temples would be a day spent with almost half-closed eyes.[*]
[*]No attempt is made in this discussion to enumerate the various gods and demigods of the conventional mythology, their regular attributes, etc. It is assumed the average history or manual of mythology gives sufficient information.
It is far easier to learn how the Athenians arrange their houses than how the average man among them adjusts his attitude toward the gods. While any searching examination of the fundamentals of Greek cultus and religion is here impossible, two or three facts must, nevertheless, be kept in mind, if we are to understand even the OUTWARD side of this Greek religion which is everywhere in evidence about us.
First of all we observe that the Greek religion is a religion of purely natural growth. No prophet has initiated it, or claimed a new revelation to supplement the older views. It has come from primitive times without a visible break even down to the Athens of Plato. This explains at once why so many time-honored stories of the Olympic deities are very gross, and why the gods seem to give countenance to moral views which the best public opinion has long since called scandalous and criminal. The religion of Athens, in other words, may justly claim to be judged by its best, not by its worst; by the morality of Socrates, not of Homer.
Secondly, this religion is not a church, nor a belief, but is part of the government. Every Athenian is born into accepting the fact that Athena Polias is the divine warder of the city, as much as he is born into accepting the fact that it is his duty to obey the strategi in battle. To repudiate the gods of Athens, e.g. in favor of those of Egypt, is as much iniquity as to join forces against the Athenians if they are at war with Egypt; - the thing is sheer treason, and almost unthinkable. For countless generations the Athenians have worshipped the "Ancestral Gods." They are proud of them, familiar with them; the gods have participated in all the prosperity of the city. Athena is as much a part of Attica as gray Hymettus or white-crowned Pentelicus; and the very fact that comedians, like Aristophanes, make good-natured fun of the divinities indicates that "they are members of the family."
Thirdly, notice that this religion is one mainly of outward reverence and ceremony. There is no "Athenian church"; nobody has drawn up an "Attic creed" - "I believe in Athena, the City Warder, and in Demeter, the Earth Mother, and in Zeus, the King of Heaven, etc." Give outward reverence, participate in the great public sacrifices, be careful in all the minutie of private worship, refrain from obvious blasphemies - you are then a sufficiently pious man. What you BELIEVE is of very little consequence. Even if you privately believe there are no gods at all, it harms no one, provided your outward conduct is pious and moral.
182. What constitutes "Piety" in Athens. - Of course there have been some famous prosecutions for "impiety." Socrates was the most conspicuous victim; but Socrates was a notable worshipper of the gods, and certainly all the charges of his being an "atheist" broke down. What he was actually attacked with was "corrupting the youth of Athens," i.e. giving the young men such warped ideas of their private and public duties that they ceased to be moral and useful citizens. But even Socrates was convicted only with difficulty[*]; a generation has passed since his death. Were he on trial at present, a majority of the jury would probably be with him.
[*]It might be added that if Socrates had adopted a really worldly wise line of defense, he would probably have been acquitted, or subjected merely to a mild pecuniary penalty.
The religion of Athens is something very elastic, and really every man makes his own creed for himself, or - for paganism is almost never dogmatic - accepts the outward cultus with everybody else, and speculates at his leisure on the nature of the deity. The great bulk of the uneducated are naturally content to accept the old stories and superstitions with unthinking credulity. It is enough to know that one must pray to Zeus for rain, and to Hermes for luck in a slippery business bargain. There are a few philosophers who, along with perfectly correct outward observance, teach privately that the old Olympian system is a snare and folly. They pass around the daring word which Xenophanes uttered as early as the sixth century B.C.: -
One God there is, greatest of gods and mortals, Not like to man is he in mind or in body. All of him sees, all of him thinks, and all of him harkens.
This, of course, is obvious pantheism, but it is easy to cover up all kinds of pale monotheism or pantheism under vague reference to the omnipotence of "Zeus."