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Ch. 28: Origin of Mythology, Statues of Gods and Goddesses, Poets

Having reached the close of our series of stories of Pagan
mythology, an inquiry suggests itself. "Whence came these
stories? Have they a foundation in truth, or are they simply
dreams of the imagination?" Philosophers have suggested various
theories on the subject of which we shall give three or four.

1. The Scriptural theory; according to which all mythological
legends are derived from the narratives of Scripture, though the
real facts have been disguised and altered. Thus Deucalion is
only another name for Noah, Hercules for Samson, Arion for Jonah,
etc. Sir Walter Raleigh, in his History of the World, says,
"Jubal, Tubal, and Tubal-Cain were Mercury, Vulcan, and Apollo,
inventors of Pasturage, Smithing, and Music. The Dragon which
kept the golden apples was the serpent that beguiled Eve.
Nimrod's tower was the attempt of the Giants against Heaven.
There are doubtless many curious coincidences like these, but the
theory cannot without extravagance be pushed so far as to account
for any great proportion of the stories.

2. The Historical theory; according to which all the persons
mentioned in mythology were once real human beings, and the
legends and fabulous traditions relating to them are merely the
additions and embellishments of later times. Thus the story of
AEolus, the king and god of the winds, is supposed to have risen
from the fact that AEolus was the ruler of some islands in the
Tyrrhenian Sea, where he reigned as a just and pious king, and
taught the natives the use of sails for ships, and how to tell
from the signs of the atmosphere the changes of the weather and
the winds. Cadmus, who, the legend says, sowed the earth with
dragon's teeth, from which sprang a crop of armed men, was in
fact an emigrant from Phoenicia, and brought with him into Greece
the knowledge of the letters of the alphabet, which he taught to
the natives. From these rudiments of learning sprung
civilization, which the poets have always been prone to describe
as a deterioration of man's first estate, the Golden Age of
innocence and simplicity.

3. The Allegorical theory supposes that all the myths of the
ancients were allegorical and symbolical, and contained some
moral, religious, or philosophical truth or historical fact,
under the form of an allegory, but came in process of time to be
understood literally. Thus Saturn, who devours his own children,
is the same power whom the Greeks called Kronos (Time), which may
truly be said to destroy whatever it has brought into existence.
The story of Io is interpreted in a similar manner. Io is the
moon, and Argus the starry sky, which, as it were, keeps
sleepless watch over her. The fabulous wanderings of Io
represent the continual revolutions of the moon, which also
suggested to Milton the same idea.

"To behold the wandering moon
Riding near her highest noon,
Like one that had been led astray
In the heaven's wide, pathless way."
Il Penseroso

4. The Astronomical theory supposes that the different stories
are corrupted versions of astronomical statements, of which the
true meaning was forgotten. This theory is pushed to its extreme
by Dupuis, in his treatise "Sur tous les cultes."

5. The Physical theory, according to which the elements of air,
fire, and water, were originally the objects of religious
adoration, and the principal deities were personifications of the
powers of nature. The transition was easy from a personification
of the elements to the notion of supernatural beings presiding
over and governing the different objects of nature. The Greeks,
whose imagination was lively, peopled all nature with invisible
beings, and supposed that every object, from the sun and sea to
the smallest fountain and rivulet, was under the care of some
particular divinity. Wordsworth, in his Excursion, has
beautifully developed this view of Grecian mythology.

"In that fair clime the lonely herdsman, stretched
On the soft grass through half a summer's day,
With music lulled his indolent repose;
And, in some fit of weariness, if he,
When his own breath was silent, chanced to hear
A distant strain far sweeter than the sounds
Which his poor skill could make, his fancy fetched
Even from the blazing chariot of the sun
A beardless youth who touched a golden lute,
And filled the illumined groves with ravishment.
The mighty hunter, lifting up his eyes
Toward the crescent Moon, with grateful heart
Called on the lovely Wanderer who bestowed
That timely light to share his joyous sport;
And hence a beaming goddess with her nymphs
Across the lawn and through the darksome grove
(Not unaccompanied with tuneful notes
By echo multiplied from rock or cave)
Swept in the storm of chase, as moon and stars
Glance rapidly along the clouded heaven
When winds are blowing strong. The traveller slaked
His thirst from rill or gushing fount, and thanked
The Naiad. Sunbeams upon distant hills
Gliding apace with shadows in their train,
Might with small help from fancy, be transformed
Into fleet Oreads sporting visibly.
The Zephyrs, fanning, as they passed, their wings,
Lacked not for love fair objects whom they wooed
With gentle whisper. Withered boughs grotesque,
Stripped of their leaves and twigs by hoary age,
>From depth of shaggy covert peeping forth
In the low vale, or on steep mountain side;
And sometimes intermixed with stirring horns
Of the live deer, or goat's depending beard;
These were the lurking Satyrs, a wild brood
Of gamesome deities; or Pan himself,
The simple shepherd's awe-inspiring god."

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.

STATUES OF THE GODS

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 OLYMPIAN JUPITER

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,
And 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.")

THE MINERVA OF THE PARTHENON

This was also the work of Phidias. It stood in the Parthenon, or
temple of Minera at Athens. The goddess was represented
standing. In one hand she held a spear, in the other a statue of
Victory. Her helmet, highly decorated, was surmounted by a
Sphinx. The statue was forty feet in height, and, like the
Jupiter, composed of ivory and gold. The eyes were of marble,
and probably painted to represent the iris and pupil. The
Parthenon in which this statue stood was also constructed under
the direction and superintendence of Phidias. Its exterior was
enriched with sculptures, many of them from the hand of Phidias.
The Elgin marbles now in the British Museum are a part of them.

Both the Jupiter and Minerva of Phidias are lost, but there is
good ground to believe that we have, in several extant statues
and busts, the artist's conceptions of the countenances of both.
They are characterized by grave and dignified beauty, and freedom
from any transient expression, which in the language of art is
called REPOSE.

THE VENUS DE' MEDICI

The Venus of the Medici is so called from its having been in the
possession of the princes of that name in Rome when it first
attracted attention, about two hundred years ago. An inscription
on the base records it to be the work of Cleomenes, an Athenian
sculptor of 200 B.C., but the authenticity of the inscription is
doubtful. There is a story that the artist was employed by
public authority to make a statue exhibiting the perfection of
female beauty, and to aid him in his task, the most perfect forms
the city could supply were furnished him for models. It is this
which Thomson alludes to in his Summer.

"So stands the statue that enchants the world;
So bending tries to veil the matchless boast,
The mingled beauties of exulting Greece."

Byron also alludes to this statue. Speaking of the Florence
Museum, he says:

"There too the goddess loves in stone, and fills
The air around with beauty;"

And in the next stanza,

"Blood, pulse, and breast confirm the Dardan shepherd's prize."

This last allusion is explained in Chapter XX.

THE APOLLO BELVEDERE

The most highly esteemed of all the remains of ancient sculpture
is the statue of Apollo, called the Belvedere, from the name of
the apartment of the Pope's palace at Rome, in which it is
placed. The artist is unknown. It is supposed to be a work of
Roman art, of about the first century of our era. It is a
standing figure, in marble, more than seven feet high, naked
except for the cloak which is fastened around the neck and hangs
over the extended left arm. It is supposed to represent the god
in the moment when he has shot the arrow to destroy the monster
Python (See Chapter II). The victorious divinity is in the act
of stepping forward. The left arm which seems to have held the
bow is outstretched, and the head is turned in the same
direction. In attitude and proportion the graceful majesty of
the figure is unsurpassed. The effect is completed by the
countenance, where, on the perfection of youthful godlike beauty
there dwells the consciousness of triumphant power.

THE DIANA A LA BICHE

The Diana of the hind, in the palace of the Louvre, may be
considered the counterpart to the Apollo Belvedere. The attitude
much resembles that of the Apollo, the sizes correspond and also
the style of execution. It is a work of the highest order,
though by no means equal to the Apollo. The attitude is that of
hurried and eager motion, the face that of a huntress in the
excitement of the chase. The left hand is extended over the
forehead of the Hind which runs by her side, the right arm
reaches backward over the shoulder to draw an arrow from the
quiver.

THE VENUS OF MELOS

Of the Venus of Melos, perhaps the most famous of our statues of
mythology, very little is known. There are many indeed who
believe that it is not a statue of Venus at all.

It was found in the year 1820 in the Island of Melos by a
peasant, who sold it to the French consul at the place. The
statue was standing in the theatre, which had been filled up with
rubbish in the course of centuries, and when discovered was
broken in several places, and some of the pieces were gone.
These missing pieces, notably the two arms, have been restored in
various ways by modern artists. As has been said above, there is
a controversy as to whether the statue represents Venus or some
other goddess. Much has been written on each side, but the
question still remains unsettled. The general opinion of those
who contend that it is not Venus is that it is a statue or Nike
or Victory.

THE POETS OF MYTHOLOGY

Homer, from whose poems of the Iliad and Odyssey we have taken
the chief part of our chapters of the Trojan war and the return
of the Grecians, is almost as mythical a personage as the heroes
he celebrates. The traditionary story is that he was a wandering
minstrel, blind and old, who travelled from place to place
singing his lays to the music of his harp, in the courts of
princes or the cottages of peasants, and dependent upon the
voluntary offerings of his hearers for support. Byron calls him
"The blind old man of Scio's rocky isle," and a well-known
epigram, alluding to the uncertainty of the fact of his
birthplace, says,


"Seven wealthy towns contend for Homer dead,
Through which the living Homer begged his bread."

An older version is,

"Seven cities warred for Homer being dead,
Who living had no roof to shroud his head."

These lines are by Thomas Heywood; the others are ascribed to
Thomas Seward.

These seven cities were Smyrna, Scio, Rhodes, Colophon, Salamis,
Argos, and Athens.

Modern scholars have doubted whether the Homeric poems are the
work of any single mind. This arises from the difficulty of
believing that poems of such length could have been committed to
writing at so early an age as that usually assigned to these, an
age earlier than the date of any remaining inscriptions or coins,
and when no materials, capable of containing such long
productions were yet introduced into use. On the other hand it
is asked how poems of such length could have been handed down
from age to age by means of the memory alone. This is answered
by the statement that there was a professional body of men,
called Rhapsodists, who recited the poems of others, and whose
business it was to commit to memory and rehearse for pay the
national and patriotic legends.

The prevailing opinion of the learned, at this time, seems to be
that the framework and much of the structure of the poems belong
to Homer, but that there are numerous interpolations and
additions by other hands.

The date assigned to Homer, on the authority of Herodotus, is 850
B.C., but a range of two or three centuries must be given for the
various conjectures of critics.

VIRGIL

Virgil, called also by his surname, Maro, from whose poem of the
AEneid we have taken the story of AEneas, was one of the great
poets who made the reign of the Roman emperor, Augustus, so
celebrated, under the name of the Augustan age. Virgil was born
in Mantua in the year 70 B.C. His great poem is ranked next to
those of Homer, in the highest class of poetical composition, the
Epic. Virgil is far inferior to Homer in originality and
invention, but superior to him in correctness and elegance. To
critics of English lineage Milton alone of modern poets seems
worthy to be classed with these illustrious ancients. His poem
of Paradise Lost, from which we have borrowed so many
illustrations, is in many respects equal, in some superior, to
either of the great works of antiquity. The following epigram of
Dryden characterizes the three poets with as much truth as it is
usual to find in such pointed criticism:

ON MILTON

"Three poets in three different ages born.
Greece, Italy, and England did adorn.
The first in loftiness of soul surpassed,
The next in majesty, in both the last.
The force of nature could no further go;
To make a third she joined the other two."

>From Cowper's Table Talk:

"Ages elapsed ere Homer's lamp appeared,
And ages ere the Mantuan swan was heard.
To carry nature lengths unknown before,
To give a Milton birth, asked ages more.
Thus genius rose and set at ordered times,
And shot a dayspring into distant climes,
Ennobling every region that he chose;
He sunk in Greece, in Italy he rose,
And, tedious years of Gothic darkness past,
Emerged all splendor in our isle at last.
Thus lovely halcyons dive into the main,
Then show far off their shining plumes again."

OVID

Often alluded to in poetry by his other name of Naso, was born in
the year 43 B.C. He was educated for public life and held some
offices of considerable dignity, but poetry was his delight, and
he early resolved to devote himself to it. He accordingly sought
the society of the contemporary poets, and was acquainted with
Horace and saw Virgil, though the latter died when Ovid was yet
too young and undistinguished to have formed his acquaintance.
Ovid spent an easy life at Rome in the enjoyment of a competent
income. He was intimate with the family of Augustus, the
emperor, and it is supposed that some serious offence given to
some member of that family was the cause of an event which
reversed the poet's happy circumstances and clouded all the
latter portion of his life. At the age of fifty he was banished
from Rome, and ordered to betake himself to Tomi, on the borders
of the Black Sea. Here, among the barbarous people and in a
severe climate, the poet, who had been accustomed to all the
pleasures of a luxurious capital and the society of his most
distinguished contemporaries, spent the last ten years of his
life, worn out with grief and anxiety. His only consolation in
exile was to address his wife and absent friends, and his letters
were all poetical. Though these poems (The Tristia and Letters
from Pontus) have no other topic than the poet's sorrows, his
exquisite taste and fruitful invention have redeemed them from
the charge of being tedious, and they are read with pleasure and
even with sympathy.

The two great works of Ovid are his Metamorphoses and his Fasti.
They are both mythological poems, and from the former we have
taken most of our stories of Grecian and Roman mythology. A late
writer thus characterizes these poems:

"The rich mythology of Greece furnished Ovid, as it may
still furnish the poet, the painter, and the sculptor, with
materials for his art. With exquisite taste, simplicity, and
pathos he has narrated the fabulous traditions of early ages, and
given to them that appearance of reality which only a master-hand
could impart. His pictures of nature are striking and true; he
selects with care that which is appropriate; he rejects the
superfluous; and when he has completed his work, it is neither
defective nor redundant. The Metamorphoses are read with
pleasure by youth, and are re-read in more advanced age with
still greater delight. The poet ventured to predict that his
poem would survive him, and be read wherever the Roman name was
known."

The prediction above alluded to is contained in the closing lines
of the Metamorphoses, of which we give a literal translation
below:

"And now I close my work, which not the ire
Of Jove, nor tooth of time, nor sword, nor fire
Shall bring to nought. Come when it will that day
Which o'er the body, not the mind, has sway,
And snatch the remnant of my life away,
My better part above the stars shall soar,
And my renown endure for evermore.
Where'er the Roman arms and arts shall spread,
There by the people shall my book be read;
And, if aught true in poet's visions be,
My name and fame have immortality."


Thomas Bulfinch

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