Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Free Classic E-books

The Queen of the Air by John Ruskin

Part 1 out of 3

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.3 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

E-text prepared by Julie C. Sparks


Being a Study of the Greek Myths of Cloud and Storm





(Athena in the Heavens.)
Lecture on the Greek myths of Storm, given (partly) in University
College, London, March 9, 1869.

(Athena in the Earth.)
Study, supplementary to the preceding lecture, of the supposed and actual
relations of Athena to the vital force in material organism.

(Athena in the Heart.)
Various notes relating to the Conception of Athena as the Directress of
the Imagination and Will.


My days and strength have lately been much broken; and I never more felt
the insufficiency of both than in preparing for the press the following
desultory memoranda on a most noble subject. But I leave them now as
they stand, for no time nor labor would be enough to complete them to my
contentment; and I believe that they contain suggestions which may be
followed with safety, by persons who are beginning to take interest in
the aspects of mythology, which only recent investigation has removed
from the region of conjecture into that of rational inquiry. I have
some advantage, also, from my field work, in the interpretation of myths
relating to natural phenomena; and I have had always near me, since we
were at college together, a sure, and unweariedly kind, guide, in my
friend Charles Newton, to whom we owe the finding of more treasure in
mines of marble than, were it rightly estimated, all California could
buy. I must not, however, permit the chance of his name being in any
wise associated with my errors. Much of my work as been done obstinately
in my own way; and he is never responsible for me, though he has often
kept me right, or at least enabled me to advance in a new direction.
Absolutely right no one can be in such matters; nor does a day pass
without convincing every honest student of antiquity of some partial
error, and showing him better how to think, and where to look. But I
knew that there was no hope of my being able to enter with advantage on
the fields of history opened by the splendid investigation of recent
philologists, though I could qualify myself, by attention and sympathy,
to understand, here and there, a verse of Homer's or Hesiod's, as the
simple people did for whom they sang.

Even while I correct these sheets for press, a lecture by Professor
Tyndall has been put into my hands, which I ought to have heard last 16th
January, but was hindered by mischance; and which, I now find, completes,
in two important particulars, the evidence of an instinctive truth in
ancient symbolism; showing, first, that the Greek conception of an
aetherial element pervading space is justified by the closest reasoning of
modern physicists; and, secondly, that the blue of the sky, hitherto
thought to be caused by watery vapour, is, indeed, reflected from the
divided air itself; so that the bright blue of the eyes of Athena, and
the deep blue of her aegis, prove to be accurate mythic expressions of
natural phenomena which it is an uttermost triumph of recent science to
have revealed.

Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine triumph more complete. To form,
"within an experimental tube, a bit of more perfect sky than the sky
itself!" here is magic of the finest sort! singularly reversed from that
of old time, which only asserted its competency to enclose in bottles
elemental forces that were--not of the sky.

Let me, in thanking Professor Tyndall for the true wonder of this piece
of work, ask his pardon, and that of all masters in physical science, for
any words of mine, either in the following pages or elsewhere, that may
ever seem to fail in the respect due to their great powers of thought, or
in the admiration due to the far scope of their discovery. But I will be
judged by themselves, if I have not bitter reason to ask them to teach us
more than yet they have taught.

This first day of May, 1869, I am writing where my work was begun
thirty-five years ago, within sight of the snows of the higher Alps. In
that half of the permitted life of man, I have seen strange evil brought
upon every scene that I best loved, or tried to make beloved by others.
The light which once flushed those pale summits with its rose at dawn,
and purple at sunset, is now umbered and faint; the air which once inlaid
the clefts of all their golden crags with azure is now defiled with
languid coils of smoke, belched from worse than volcanic fires; their
very glacier waves are ebbing, and their snows fading, as if hell had
breathed on them; the waters that once sank at their feet into
crystalline rest are now dimmed and foul, from deep to deep, and shore to
shore. These are no careless words--they are accurately, horribly, true.
I know what the Swiss lakes were; no pool of Alpine fountain at its
source was clearer. This morning, on the Lake of Geneva, at half a mile
from the beach, I could scarcely see my oar-blade a fathom deep.

The light, the air, the waters, all defiled! How of the earth itself?
Take this one fact for type of honour done by the modern Swiss to the
earth of his native land. There used to be a little rock at the end of
the avenue by the port of Neuchatel; there, the last marble of the foot
of Jura, sloping to the blue water, and (at this time of year) covered
with bright pink tufts of Saponaria. I went, three days since, to gather
a blossom at the place. The goodly native rock and its flowers were
covered with the dust and refuse of the town; but, in the middle of the
avenue, was a newly-constructed artificial rockery, with a fountain
twisted through a spinning spout, and an inscription on one of its
loose-tumbled stones,--

"Aux Botanistes,
Le club Jurassique,"

Ah, masters of modern science, give me back my Athena out of your vials,
and seal, if it may be, once more, Asmodeus therein. You have divided
the elements, and united them; enslaved them upon the earth, and
discerned them in the stars. Teach us now, but this of them, which is
all that man need know,--that the Air is given to him for his life; and
the Rain to his thirst, and for his baptism; and the Fire for warmth; and
the Sun for sight; and the Earth for his Meat--and his Rest.

VEVAY, May 1, 1869.



(Athena in the Heavens.)

* "Athena the Restrainer." The name is given to her as having helped
Bellerophon to bridle Pegasus, the flying cloud.


1. I will not ask your pardon for endeavoring to interest you in the
subject of Greek Mythology; but I must ask your permission to approach
it in a temper differing from that in which it is frequently treated.
We cannot justly interpret the religion of any people, unless we are
prepared to admit that we ourselves, as well as they, are liable to
error in matters of faith; and that the convictions of others, however
singular, may in some points have been well founded, while our own,
however reasonable, may be in some particulars mistaken. You must
forgive me, therefore, for not always distinctively calling the creeds
of the past "superstition," and the creeds of the present day "religion;"
as well as for assuming that a faith now confessed may sometimes be
superficial, and that a faith long forgotten may once have been sincere.
It is the task of the Divine to condemn the errors of antiquity, and of
the philologists to account for them; I will only pray you to read, with
patience, and human sympathy, the thoughts of men who lived without blame
in a darkness they could not dispel; and to remember that, whatever
charge of folly may justly attach to the saying, "There is no God," the
folly is prouder, deeper, and less pardonable, in saying, "There is no
God but for me."

2. A myth, in its simplest definition, is a story with a meaning attached
to it other than it seems to have at first; and the fact that it has such
a meaning is generally marked by some of its circumstances being
extraordinary, or, in the common use of the word, unnatural. Thus if I
tell you that Hercules killed a water-serpent in the lake of Lerna, and
if I mean, and you understand, nothing more than that fact, the story,
whether true or false, is not a myth. But if by telling you this, I mean
that Hercules purified the stagnation of many streams from deadly
miasmata, my story, however simple, is a true myth; only, as, if I leftit
in that simplicity, you would probably look for nothing beyond, it will
be wise in me to surprise your attention by adding some singular
circumstance; for instance, that the water-snake had several heads, which
revived as fast as they were killed, and which poisoned even the foot
that trod upon them as they slept. And in proportion to the fulness of
intended meaning I shall probably multiply and refine upon these
improbabilities; as, suppose, if, instead of desiring only to tell you
that Hercules purified a marsh, I wished you to understand that he
contended with the venom and vapor of envy and evil ambition, whether in
other men's souls or in his own, and choked that malaria only by supreme
toil,--I might tell you that this serpent was formed by the goddess whose
pride was in the trial of Hercules; and that its place of abode as by a
palm-tree; and that for every head of it that was cut off, two rose up
with renewed life; and that the hero found at last that he could not kill
the creature at all by cutting its heads off or crushing them, but only
by burning them down; and that the midmost of them could not be killed
even that way, but had to be buried alive. Only in proportion as I mean
more, I shall certainly appear more absurd in my statement; and at last
when I get unendurably significant, all practical persons will agree that
I was talking mere nonsense from the beginning, and never meant anything
at all.

3. It is just possible, however, also, that the story-teller may all
along have meant nothing but what he said; and that, incredible as the
events may appear, he himself literally believed--and expected you also
to believe--all this about Hercules, without any latent moral or history
whatever. And it is very necessary, in reading traditions of this kind,
to determine, first of all, whether you are listening to a simple person,
who is relating what, at all events, he believes to be true, (and may,
therefore, possibly have been so to some extent), or to a reserved
philosopher, who is veiling a theory of the universe under the grotesque
of a fairy tale. It is, in general, more likely that the first
supposition should be the right one: simple and credulous persons are,
perhaps fortunately, more common than philosophers; and it is of the
highest importance that you should take their innocent testimony as it
was meant, and not efface, under the graceful explanation which your
cultivated ingenuity may suggest, either the evidence their story may
contain (such as it is worth) of an extraordinary event having really
taken place, or the unquestionable light which it will cast upon the
character of the person by whom it was frankly believed. And to deal
with Greek religion honestly, you must at once understand that this
literal belief was, in the mind of the general people, as deeply rooted
as ours in the legends of our own sacred book; and that a basis of
unmiraculous event was as little suspected, and an explanatory symbolism
as rarely traced, by them, as by us.

You must, therefore, observe that I deeply degrade the position which
such a myth as that just referred to occupied in the Greek mind, by
comparing it (for fear of offending you) to our story of St. George and
the Dragon. Still, the analogy is perfect in minor respects; and though
it fails to give you any notion of the Greek faith, it will exactly
illustrate the manner in which faith laid hold of its objects.

4. This story of Hercules and the Hydra, then, was to the general Greek
mind, in its best days, a tale about a real hero and a real monster. Not
one in a thousand knew anything of the way in which the story had arisen,
any more than the English peasant generally is aware of the plebeian
original of St. George; or supposes that there were once alive in the
world, with sharp teeth and claws, real, and very ugly, flying dragons.
On the other hand, few persons traced any moral or symbolical meaning in
the story, and the average Greek was as far from imagining any
interpretation like that I have just given you, as an average Englishman
is from seeing is St. George the Red Cross Knight of Spenser, or in the
Dragon the Spirit of Infidelity. But, for all that, there was a certain
undercurrent of consciousness in all minds that the figures meant more
than they at first showed; and, according to each man's own faculties of
sentiment, he judged and read them; just as a Knight of the Garter reads
more in the jewel on his collar than the George and Dragon of a
public-house expresses to the host or to his customers. Thus, to the
mean person the myth always meant little; to the noble person, much; and
the greater their familiarity with it, the more contemptible it became to
one, and the more sacred to the other; until vulgar commentators
explained it entirely away, while Virgil made the crowning glory of his
choral hymn to Hercules.

"Around thee, powerless to infect thy soul,
Rose, in his crested crowd, the Lerna worm."

"Non te rationis egentem
Lernaeus turba capitum circumstetit anguis."

And although, in any special toil of the hero's life, the moral
interpretation was rarely with definiteness attached to the event, yet
in the whole course of the life, not only for a symbolical meaning, but
the warrant for the existence of a real spiritual power, was apprehended
of all men. Hercules was no dead hero, to be remembered only as a victor
over monsters of the past--harmless now as slain. He was the perpetual
type and mirror of heroism, and its present and living aid against every
ravenous form of human trial and pain.

5. But, if we seek to know more than this and to ascertain the manner in
which the story first crystallized into its shape, we shall find
ourselves led back generally to one or other of two sources--either to
actual historical events, represented by the fancy under figures
personifying them; or else to natural phenomena similarly endowed with
life by the imaginative power usually more or less under the influence of
terror. The historical myths we must leave the masters of history to
follow; they, and the events they record, being yet involved in great,
though attractive and penetrable, mystery. But the stars, and hills, and
storms are with us now, as they were with others of old; and it only
needs that we look at them with the earnestness of those childish eyes to
understand the first words spoken of them by the children of men, and
then, in all the most beautiful and enduring myths, we shall find, not
only a literal story of a real person, not only a parallel imagery of
moral principle, but an underlying worship of natural phenomena, out of
which both have sprung, and in which both forever remain rooted. Thus,
from the real sun, rising and setting,--from the real atmosphere, calm in
its dominion of unfading blue, and fierce in its descent of tempest,--the
Greek forms first the idea of two entirely personal and corporal gods,
whose limbs are clothes in divine flesh, and whose brows are crowned with
divine beauty; yet so real that the quiver rattles at their shoulder, and
the chariot bends beneath their weight. And, on the other hand,
collaterally with these corporeal images, and never for one instant
separated from them, he conceives also two omnipresent spiritual
influences, as the sun, with a constant fire, whatever in humanity is
skilful and wise; and the other, like the living air, breathes the calm
of heavenly fortitude, and strength of righteous anger, into every human
breast that is pure and brave.

6. Now, therefore, in nearly every myth of importance, and certainly in
every one of those which I shall speak to-night, you have to discern
these three structural parts,--the root and the two branches: the root,
in physical existence, sun, or sky, or cloud, or sea; then the personal
incarnation of that, becoming a trusted and companionable deity, with
whom you may walk hand in hand, as a child with its brother or its
sister; and, lastly, the moral significance of the image, which is in all
the great myths eternally and beneficently true.

7. The great myths; that is to say, myths made by great people. For the
first plain fact about myth-making is one which has been most strangely
lost sight of,--that you cannot make a myth unless you have something to
make it of. You cannot tell a secret which you don't know. If the myth
is about the sky, it must have been made by somebody who has looked at
the sky. If the myth is about justice and fortitude, it must have been
made by someone who knew what it was to be just or patient. According to
the quantity of understanding in the person will be the quantity of
significance in his fable; and the myth of a simple and ignorant race
must necessarily mean little, because a simple and ignorant race have
little to mean. So the great question in reading a story is always, not
what wild hunter dreamed, or what childish race first dreaded it; but
what wise man first perfectly told, and what strong people first
perfectly lived by it. And the real meaning of any myth is that which it
has at the noblest age of the nation among whom it is current. The
farther back you pierce, the less significance you will find, until you
come to the first narrow thought, which, indeed, contains the germ of the
accomplished tradition; but only as the seed contains the flower. As the
intelligence and passion of the race develop, they cling to and nourish
their beloved and sacred legend; leaf by leaf it expands under the touch
of more pure affections, and more delicate imagination, until at last the
perfect fable burgeons out into symmetry of milky stem and honied bell.

8. But through whatever changes it may pass, remember that our right
reading of it is wholly dependent on the materials we have in our own
minds for an intelligent answering sympathy. If it first arose among a
people who dwelt under stainless skies, and measures their journeys by
ascending and declining stars, we certainly cannot read their story, if
we have never seen anything above us in the day but smoke, nor anything
around us in the night but candles. If the tale goes on to change clouds
or planets into living creatures,--to invest them with fair forms and
inflame them with mighty passions,--we can only understand the story of
the human-hearted things, in so far as we ourselves take pleasure in the
perfectness of visible form, or can sympathize, by an effort of
imagination, with the strange people who had other loves than those of
wealth, and other interests than those of commerce. And, lastly, if the
myth complete itself to the fulfilled thoughts of the nation, by
attributing to the gods, whom they have carved out of their fantasy,
continual presence with their own souls; and their every effort for good
is finally guided by the sense of the companionship, the praise, and the
pure will of immortals, we shall be able to follow them into this last
circle of their faith only in the degree in which the better parts of our
own beings have been also stirred by the aspects of nature, or
strengthened by her laws. It may be easy to prove that the ascent of
Apollo in his chariot signifies nothing but the rising of the sun. But
what does the sunrise itself signify to us? If only languid return to
frivolous amusement, or fruitless labor, it will, indeed, not be easy for
us to conceive the power, over a Greek, of the name of Apollo. But if,
fir us also, as for the Greek, the sunrise means daily restoration to the
sense of passionate gladness and of perfect life--if it means the
thrilling of new strength through every nerve,--the shedding over us of a
better peace than the peace of night, in the power of the dawn,--and the
purging of evil vision and fear by the baptism of its dew;--if the sun
itself is an influence, to us also, of spiritual good--and becomes thus
in reality, not in imagination, to us also, a spiritual power,--we may
then soon over-pass the narrow limit of conception which kept that power
impersonal, and rise with the Greek to the thought of an angel who
rejoiced as a strong man to run his course, whose voice calling to life
and to labor rang round the earth, and whose going forth was to the ends
of heaven.

9. The time, then, at which I shall take up for you, as well as I can
decipher it, the traditions of the gods of Greece, shall be near the
beginning of its central and formed faith,--about 500 B.C.,--a faith of
which the character is perfectly represented by Pindar and AEschylus, who
are both of them outspokenly religious, and entirely sincere men; while
we may always look back to find the less developed thought of the
preceding epoch given by Homer, in a more occult, subtle,
half-instinctive, and involuntary way.

10. Now, at that culminating period of the Greek religion, we find,
under one governing Lord of all things, four subordinate elemental
forces, and four spiritual powers living in them and commanding them.
The elements are of course the well-known four of the ancient world,--
the earth, the waters, the fire, and the air; and the living powers of
them are Demeter, the Latin Ceres; Poseidon, the Latin Neptune; Apollo,
who has retained always his Greek name; and Athena, the Latin Minerva.
Each of these are descended from, or changed from, more ancient, and
therefore more mystic, deities of the earth and heaven, and of a finer
element of aether supposed to be beyond the heavens;* but at this time
we find the four quite definite, both in their kingdoms and in their
personalities. They are the rulers of the earth that we tread upon, and
the air that we breathe; and are with us closely, in their vivid
humanity, as the dust that they animate, and the winds that they bridle.
I shall briefly define for you the range of their separate dominions, and
then follow, as far as we have time, the most interesting of the legends
which relate to the queen of the air.

* And by modern science now also asserted, and with probability argued,
to exist.

11. The rule of the first spirit, Demeter, the earth mother, is over the
earth, first, as the origin of all life,--the dust from whence we were
taken; secondly, as the receiver of all things back at last into silence
--"Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." And, therefore, as
the most tender image of this appearing and fading life, in the birth and
fall of flowers, her daughter Proserpine plays in the fields of Sicily,
and thence is torn away into darkness, and becomes the Queen of Fate--not
merely of death, but of the gloom which closes over and ends, not beauty
only, but sin, and chiefly of sins the sin against the life she gave; so
that she is, in her highest power, Persephone, the avenger and purifier
of blood--"The voice of thy brother's blood cries to me out of the
ground." Then, side by side with this queen of the earth, we find a
demigod of agriculture by the plough--the lord of grain, or of the thing
ground by the mill. And it is a singular proof of the simplicity of
Greek character at this noble time, that of all representations left to
us of their deities by their art, few are so frequent, and none perhaps
so beautiful, as the symbol of this spirit of agriculture.

12. Then the dominant spirit of the element water is Neptune, but
subordinate to him are myriads of other water spirits, of whom Nereus is
the chief, with Palaemon, and Leucothea, the "white lady" of the sea; and
Thetis, and nymphs innumerable who, like her, could "suffer a sea
change," while the river deities had each independent power, according
to the preciousness of their streams to the cities fed by them,--the
"fountain Arethuse, and thou, honoured flood, smooth sliding Mincius,
crowned with vocal reeds." And, spiritually, this king of the waters is
lord of the strength and daily flow of human life--he gives it material
force and victory; which as the meaning of the dedication of the hair, as
the sign of the strength of life, to the river or the native land.

13. Demeter, then, over the earth, and its giving and receiving of life.
Neptune over the waters, and the flow and force of life,--always among
the Greeks typified by the horse, which was to them as a crested
sea-wave, animated and bridled. Then the third element, fire, has set
over it two powers: over earthly fire, the assistant of human labor, is
set Hephaestus, lord of all labor in which is the flush and the sweat of
the brow; and over heavenly fire, the source of day, is set Apollo, the
spirit of all kindling, purifying, and illuminating intellectual wisdom,
each of these gods having also their subordinate or associated powers,--
servant, or sister, or companion muse.

14. Then, lastly, we come to the myth which is to be our subject of
closer inquiry,--the story of Athena and of the deities subordinate to
her. This great goddess, the Neith of the Egyptians, the Athena or
Athenaia of the Greeks, and, with broken power, half usurped by Mars,
the Minerva of the Latins, is, physically, the queen of the air; having
supreme power both over its blessing of calm, and wrath of storm; and,
spiritually, she is the queen of the breath of man, first of the bodily
breathing which is life to his blood, and strength to his arm in battle;
and then of the mental breathing, or inspiration, which is his moral
health and habitual wisdom; wisdom of conduct and of the heart, as
opposed to the wisdom of imagination and the brain; moral, as distinct
from intellectual; inspired, as distinct from illuminated.

15. By a singular and fortunate, though I believe wholly accidental,
coincidence, the heart-virtue, of which she is the spirit, was separated
by the ancients into four divisions, which have since obtained acceptance
from all men as rightly discerned, and have received, as if from the
quarters of the four winds of which Athena is the natural queen, the name
of "Cardinal" virtues: namely, Prudence (the right seeing, and
foreseeing, of events through darkness); Justice (the righteous bestowal
of favor and of indignation); Fortitude (patience under trial by pain);
and Temperance (patience under trial by pleasure). With respect to these
four virtues, the attributes of Athena are all distinct. In her
prudence, or sight in darkness, she is "Glaukopis," "owl-eyed."* In her
justice, which is the dominant virtue, she wears two robes, one of light,
and one of darkness; the robe of light, saffron color, or the color of
the daybreak, falls to her feet, covering her wholly with favor and
love,--the calm of the sky in blessing; it is embroidered along its edge
with her victory over the giants (the troublous powers of the earth), and
the likeness of it was woven yearly by the Athenian maidens and carried
to the temple of their own Athena, not to the Parthenon, that was the
temple of all the world's Athena,--but this they carried to the temple of
their own only one who loved them, and stayed with them always. Then her
robe of indignation is worn on her breast and left arm only, fringed with
fatal serpents, and fastened with Gorgonian cold, turning men to stone;
physically, the lightning and hail of chastisement by storm. Then in her
fortitude she wears the crested and unstooping hemlet;** and lastly, in
her temperance, she is the queen of maidenhood--stainless as the air of

* There are many other meanings in the epithet; see farther on, sec. 91,
pp. 133, 134.
** I am compelled, for clearness' sake, to mark only one meaning at a
time. Athena's helmet is sometimes a mask, sometimes a sign of anger,
sometimes of the highest light of aether; but I cannot speak of all this
at once.

16. But all these virtues mass themselves in the Greek mind into the two
main ones,--of Justice, or noble passion, and Fortitude, or noble
patience; and of these, the chief powers of Athena, the Greeks have
divinely written for them, and for all men after them, two mighty songs,
--one, of the Menis,* Mens, passion, or zeal, of Athena, breathed into a
mortal whose name is "Ache of heart," and whose short life is only the
incarnate brooding and burst of storm; and the other is of the foresight
and fortitude of Athena, maintained by her in the heart of a mortal whose
name is given to him from a longer grief, Odysseus, the full of sorrow,
the much enduring, and the long-suffering.

* This first word of the Iliad, Menis, afterwards passes into the Latin
Mens; is the root of the Latin name for Athena, "Minerva," and so the
root of the English "mind."

17. The minor expressions by the Greeks in word, in symbol, and in
religious service, of this faith, are so many and so beautiful, that I
hope some day to gather at least a few of them into a separate body of
evidence respecting the power of Athena, and of its relations to the
ethical conception of the Homeric poems, or, rather, to their ethical
nature; for they are not conceived didactically, but are didactic in
their essence, as all good art is. There is an increasing insensibility
to this character, and even an open denial of it, among us now which is
one of the most curious errors of modernism,--the peculiar and judicial
blindness of an age which, having long practised art and poetry for the
sake of pleasure only, has become incapable of reading their language
when they were both didactic; and also, having been itself accustomed to
a professedly didactic teaching, which yet, for private interests,
studiously avoids collision with every prevalent vice of its day (and
especially with avarice), has become equally dead to the intensely
ethical conceptions of a race which habitually divided all men into two
broad classes of worthy or worthless,--good, and good for nothing. And
even the celebrated passage of Horace about the Iliad is now misread or
disbelieved, as if it were impossible that the Iliad could be instructive
because it is not like a sermon. Horce does not say that it is like a
sermon, and would have been still less likely to say so if he ever had
had the advantage of hearing a sermon. "I have been reading that story
of Troy again" (thus he writes to a noble youth of Rome whom he cared
for), "quietly at Praeneste, while you have been busy at Rome; and truly
I think that what is base and what is noble, and what useful and useless,
may be better learned from that, than from all Chrysippus' and Crantor's
talk put together."* Which is profoundly true, not of the Iliad only,
but of all other great art whatsoever; for all pieces of such art are
didactic in the purest way, indirectly and occultly, so that, first, you
shall only be bettered by them if you are already hard at work in
bettering yourself; and when you are bettered by them, it shall be partly
with a general acceptance of their influence, so constant and subtile
that you shall be no more conscious of it than of the healthy digestion
of food; and partly by a gift of unexpected truth, which you shall only
find by slow mining for it,--which is withheld on purpose, and
close-locked, that you may not get it till you have forged the key of it
in a furnace of your own heating. And this withholding of their meaning
is continual, and confessed, in the great poets. Thus Pindar says of
himself: "There is many an arrow in my quiver, full of speech to the
wise, but, for the many, they need interpreters." And neither Pindar,
nor AEschylus, nor Hesiod, nor Homer, nor any of the greater poets or
teachers of any nation or time, ever spoke but with intentional
reservation; nay, beyond this, there is often a meaning which they
themselves cannot interpert [sic],--which it may be for ages long after
them to intrepert [sic],--in what they said, so far as it recorded true
imaginative vision. For all the greatest myths have been seen by the men
who tell them, involuntarily and passively,--seen by them with as great
distinctness (and in some respects, though not in all, under conditions
as far beyond the control of their will) as a dream sent to any of us by
night when we dream clearest; and it is this veracity of vision that
could not be refused, and of moral that could not be foreseen, which in
modern historical inquiry has been left wholly out of account; being
indeed the thing which no merely historical investigator can understand,
or even believe; for it belongs exclusively to the creative or artistic
group of men, and can only be interpreted by those of their race, who
themselves in some measure also see visions and dream dreams.

* Note, once for all, that unless when there is question about some
particular expression, I never translate literally, but give the real
force of what is said, as I best can, freely.

So that you may obtain a more truthful idea of the nature of Greek
religion and legend from the poems of Keats, and the nearly as beautiful,
and, in general grasp of subject, far more powerful, recent work of
Morris, than from frigid scholarship, however extensive. Not that the
poet's impressions or renderings of things are wholly true, but their
truth is vital, not formal. They are like sketches from the life by
Reynolds or Gainsborough, which may be demonstrably inaccurate or
imaginary in many traits, and indistinct in others, yet will be in the
deepest sense like, and true; while the work of historical analysis is
too often weak with loss, through the very labor of its miniature
touches, or useless in clumsy and vapid veracity of externals, and
complacent security of having done all that is required for the portrait,
when it has measured the breadth of the forehead and the length of the

18. The first of requirements, then, for the right reading of myths, is
the understanding of the nature of all true vision by noble persons;
namely, that it is founded on constant laws common to all human nature;
that it perceives, however darkly, things which are for all ages true;
that we can only understand it so far as we have some perception of the
same truth; and that its fulness is developed and manifested more and
more by the reverberation of it from minds of the same mirror-temper, in
succeeding ages. You will understand Homer better by seeing his
reflection in Dante, as you may trace new forms and softer colors in a
hillside, redoubled by a lake.

I shall be able partly to show you, even to-night, how much, in the
Homeric vision of Athena, has been made clearer by the advance of time,
being thus essentially and eternally true; but I must in the outset
indicate the relation to that central thought of the imagery of the
inferior deities of storm.

19. And first I will take the myth of AEolus (the "sage Hippotades" of
Milton), as it is delivered pure by Homer from the early times.

Why do you suppose Milton calls him "sage"? One does not usually think
of the winds as very thoughtful or deliberate powers. But hear Homer:
"Then we came to the AEolian island, and there dwelt AEolus Hippotades,
dear to the deathless gods; there he dwelt in a floating island, and
round it was a wall of brass that could not be broken; and the smooth
rock of it ran up sheer. To whom twelve children were born in the sacred
chambers,--six daughters and six strong sons; and they dwell foreer with
their beloved father and their mother, strict in duty; and with them are
laid up a thousand benefits; and the misty house around them rings with
fluting all the day long." Now, you are to note first, in this
description, the wall of brass and the sheer rock. You will find,
throughout the fables of the tempest-group, that the brazen wall and the
precipice (occurring in another myth as the brazen tower of Danae) are
always connected with the idea of the towering cloud lighted by the sun,
here truly described as a floating island. Secondly, you hear that all
treasures were laid up in them; therefore, you know this AEolus is lord of
the beneficent winds ("he bringeth the wind out of his treasuries"); and
presently afterwards Homer calls him the "steward" of the winds, the
master of the store-house of them. And this idea of gifts and
preciousness in the winds of heaven is carried out in the well-known
sequel of the fable: AEolus gives them to Ulysses, all but one, bound in
leathern bags, with a glittering cord of silver; and so like bags of
treasure that the sailors think they are so, and open them to see. And
when Ulysses is thus driven back to AEolus, and prays him again to help
him, note the deliberate words of the king's refusal,--"Did I not," says
he, "send thee on thy way heartily, that thou mightest reach thy country,
thy home, and whatever is dear to thee? It is not lawful for me again
to send forth favorably on his journey a man hated by the happy gods."
This idea of the beneficence of AEolus remains to the latest times, though
Virgil, by adopting the vulgar change of the cloud island into Lipari,
has lost it a little; but even when it is finally explained away by
Diodorus, AEolus is still a kind-hearted monarch, who lived on the coast
of Sorrento, invented the use of sails, and established a system of storm

20. Another beneficent storm-power, Boreas, occupies an important place
in early legend, and a singularly principal one in art; and I wish I
could read to you a passage of Plato about the legend of Boreas and
Oreithyia,* and the breeze and shade of the Ilissus--notwithstannding its
severe reflection upon persons who waste their time on mythological
studies; but I must go on at once to the fable with which you are all
generally familiar, that of the Harpies.

* Translated by Max Mueller in the opening of his essay on "Comparative
Mythology."--Chips from a German Workshop, vol. ii.

This is always connected with that of Boreas or the north wind, because
the two sons of Boreas are enemies of the Harpies, and drive them away
into frantic flight. The myth in its first literal form means only the
battle between the fair north wind and the foul south one: the two
Harpies, "Stormswift" and "Swiftfoot," are the sisters of the rainbow;
that is to say, they are the broken drifts of the showery south wind, and
the clear north wind drives them back; but they quickly take a deeper and
more malignant significance. You know the short, violent, spiral gusts
that lift the dust before coming rain: the Harpies get identified first
with these, and then with more violent whirlwinds, and so they are called
"Harpies," "the Snatchers," and are thought of as entirely destructive;
their manner of destroying being twofold,--by snatching away, and by
defiling and polluting. This is a month in which you may really see a
small Harpy at her work almost whenever you choose. The first time that
there is threatening of rain after two or three days of fine weather,
leave your window well open to the street, and some books or papers on
the table; and if you do not, in a little while, know what the Harpies
mean, and how they snatch, and how they defile, I'll give up my Greek

21. That is the physical meaning. It is now easy to find the mental
one. You must all have felt the expression of ignoble anger in those
fitful gusts of storm. There is a sense of provocation in their thin
and senseless fury, wholly different from the nobler anger of the greater
tempests. Also, they seem useless and unnatural, and the Greek thinks of
them always as vile in malice, and opposed, therefore, to the Sons of
Boreas, who are kindly winds, that fill sails, and wave harvests,--full
of bracing health and happy impulses. From this lower and merely greater
terror, always associated with their whirling motion, which is indeed
indicative of the most destructive winds; and they are thus related to
the nobler tempests, as Charybdis to the sea; they are devouring and
desolating, making all things disappear that come in their grasp; and so,
spiritually, they are the gusts of vexatious, fretful, lawless passion,
vain and overshadowing, discontented and lamenting, meager and insane,--
spirits of wasted energy, and wandering disease, and unappeased famine,
and unsatisfied hope. So you have, on the one side, the winds of
prosperity and health, on the other, of ruin and sickness. Understand
that, once, deeply,--any who have ever known the weariness of vain
desires, the pitiful, unconquerable, coiling and recoiling famine and
thirst of heart,--and you will know what was in the sound of the Harpy
Celaeno's shriek from her rock; and why, in the seventh circle of the
"Inferno," the Harpies make their nests in the warped branches of the
trees that are the souls of suicides.

22. Now you must always be prepared to read Greek legends as you trace
threads through figures on a silken damask: the same thread runs through
the web, but it makes part of different figures. Joined with other
colors you hardly recognize it, and in different lights it is dark or
light. Thus the Greek fables blend and cross curiously in different
directions, till they knit themselves into an arabesque where sometimes
you cannot tell black from purple, nor blue from emerald--they being all
the truer for this, because the truths of emotion they represent are
interwoven in the same way, but all the more difficult to read, and to
explain in any order. Thus the Harpies, as they represent vain desire,
are connected with the Sirens, who are the spirits of constant desire; so
that it is difficult sometimes in early art to know which are meant, both
being represented alike as birds with women's heads; only the Sirens are
the great constant desires--the infinite sicknesses of heart--which,
rightly placed, give life, and wrongly placed, waste it away; so that
there are two groups of Sirens, one noble and saving, as the other is
fatal. But there are no animating or saving Harpies; their nature is
always vexing and full of weariness, and thus they are curiously
connected with the whole group of legends about Tantalus.

33.* We all know what it is to be tantalized; but we do not often think
of asking what Tantalus was tantalized for--what he had done, to be
forever kept hungry in sight of food. Well; he had not been condemned to
this merely for being a glutton. By Dante the same punishment is
assigned to simple gluttony, to purge it away; but the sins of Tantalus
were of a much wider and more mysterious kind. There are four great sins
attributed to him: one, stealing the food of the gods to give it to men;
another, sacrificing his son to feed the gods themselves (it may remind
you for a moment of what I was telling you of the earthly character of
Demeter, that, while the other gods all refuse, she, dreaming about her
lost daughter, eats part of the shoulder of Pelops before she knows what
she is doing); another sin is, telling the secrets of the gods; and only
the fourth--stealing the golden dog of Pandareos--is connected with
gluttony. The special sense of this myth is marked by Pandareos
receiving the happy privilege of never being troubled with indigestion;
the dog, in general, however mythically represents all utter senseless
and carnal desires; mainly that of gluttony; and in the mythic sense of
Hades--that is to say, so far as it represents spiritual ruin in this
life, and not a literal hell--the dog Cerberus as its gatekeeper--with
this special marking of his character of sensual passion, that he fawns
on all those who descend, but rages against all who would return (the
Virgilian "facilis descendus" being a later recognition of this mythic
character of Hades); the last labor of Hercules is the dragging him up
to the light; and in some sort he represents the voracity or devouring
of Hades itself; and the mediaeval representation of the mouth of hell
perpetuates the same thought. Then, also, the power of evil passion
is partly associated with the red and scorching light of Sirius, as
opposed to the pure light of the sun: he is the dog-star of ruin; and
hence the continual Homeric dwelling upon him, and comparison of the
flame of anger to his swarthy light; only, in his scorching, it is
thirst, not hunger, over which he rules physically; so that the fable
of Icarius, his first master, corresponds, among the Greeks, to the
legend of the drunkenness of Noah.

* Printer's error: should be 23.

The story of Actaeon, the raging death of Hecuba, and the tradition of
the white dog which ate part of Hercules' first sacrifice, and so gave
name to the Cynosarges, are all various phases of the same thought,--the
Greek notion of the dog being throughout confused between its serviceable
fidelity, its watchfulness, its foul voracity, shamelessness, and deadly
madness, while with the curious reversal or recoil of the meaning which
attaches itself to nearly every great myth,--and which we shall presently
see notably exemplified in the relations of the serpent to Athena,--the
dog becomes in philosophy a type of severity and abstinence.

24. It would carry us too far aside were I to tell you the story of
Pandareos' dog--or rather of Jupiter's dog, for Pandareos was its
guardian only; all that bears on our present purpose is that the guardian
of this golden dog had three daughters, one of whom was subject to the
power of the Sirens, and is turned into a nightingale; and the other two
were subject to the power of the Harpies, and this was what happened to
them: They were very beautiful, and they were beloved by the gods in
their youth, and all the great goddesses were anxious to bring them up
rightly. Of all types of young ladies' education, there is nothing so
splendid as that of the younger daughters of Pandareos. They have
literally the four greatest goddesses for their governesses. Athena
teaches them domestic accomplishments, how to weave, and sew, and the
like; Artemis teaches them to hold themselves up straight; Hera, how to
behave proudly and oppressively to company; and Aphrodite, delightful
governess, feeds them with cakes and honey all day long. All goes well,
until just the time when they are going to be brought out; then there is
a great dispute whom they are to marry, and in the midst of it they are
carried off by the Harpies, given by them to be slaves to the Furies, and
never seen more. But of course there is nothing in Greek myths; and one
never heard of such things as vain desires, and empty hopes, and clouded
passions, defiling and snatching away the souls of maidens, in a London

I have no time to trace for you any more harpy legends, though they are
full of the most curious interest; but I may confirm for you my
interpretation of this one, and prove its importance in the Greek mind,
by noting that Polygnotus painted these maidens, in his great religious
series of paintings at Delphi, crowned with flowers, and playing at dice;
and that Penelope remembers them in her last fit of despair, just before
the return of Ulysses, and prays bitterly that she may be snatched away
at once into nothingness by the Harpies, like Pandareos' daughters,
rather than be tormented longer by her deferred hope, and anguish of
disappointed love.

25. I have hitherto spoken only of deities of the winds. We pass now to
a far more important group, the deities of cloud. Both of these are
subordinate to the ruling power of the air, as the demigods of the
fountains and minor seas are to the great deep; but, as the
cloud-firmament detaches itself more from the air, and has a wider range
of ministry than the minor streams and seas, the highest cloud deity,
Hermes, has a rank more equal with Athena than Nereus or Proteus with
Neptune; and there is greater difficulty in tracing his character,
because his physical dominion over the clouds can, of course, be asserted
only where clouds are; and, therefore, scarcely at all in Egypt;* so that
the changes which Hermes undergoes in becoming a Greek from an Egyptian
and Phoenician god, are greater than in any other case of adopted
tradition In Egypt Hermes is a deity of historical record, and a
conductor of the dead to judgment; the Greeks take away much of this
historical function, assigning it to the Muses; but, in investing him
with the physical power over clouds, they give him that which the Muses
disdain,--the power of concealment and of theft. The snatching away by
the Harpies is with brute force; but the snatching away by the clouds
is connected with the thought of hiding, and of making things seem to
be what they are not; so that Hermes is the god of lying, as he is of
mist; and yet with this ignoble function of making things vanish and
disappear is connected the remnant of his grand Egyptian authority of
leading away souls in the cloud of death (the actual dimness of sight
caused by mortal wounds physically suggesting the darkness and descent
of clouds, and continually being so described in the Iliad); while the
sense of the need of guidance on the untrodden road follows necessarily.
You cannot but remember how this thought of cloud guidance, and cloud
receiving souls at death, has been elsewhere ratified.

* I believe that the conclusions of recent scholarship are generally
opposed to the Herodotean ideas of any direct acceptance by the Greeks
of Egyptian myths: and very certainly, Greek art is developed by giving
the veracity and simplicity of real life to Eastern savage grotesque; and
not by softening the severity of pure Egyptian design. But it is of no
consequence whether one conception was, or was not, in this case, derived
from the other; my object is only to mark the essential difference
between them.

26. Without following that higher clue, I will pass to the lovely group
of myths connected with the birth of Hermes on the Greek mountains. You
know that the valley of Sparta is one of the noblest mountain ravines in
the world, and that the western flank of it is formed by an unbroken
chain of crags, forty miles long, rising, opposite Sparta, to a height of
8,000 feet, and known as the chain of Taygetus. Now, the nymph from whom
that mountain ridge is named was the mother of Lacedaemon; therefore the
mythic ancestress of the Spartan race. She is the nymph Taygeta, and one
of the seven stars of spring; one of those Pleiades of whom is the
question to Job,--"Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or
loose the bands of Orion?" "The sweet influences of Pleiades," of the
stars of spring,--nowhere sweeter than among the pine-clad slopes of the
hills of Sparta and Arcadia, when he snows of their higher summits,
beneath the sunshine of April, fell into fountains, and rose into clouds;
and in every ravine was a newly awakened voice of waters,--soft increase
of whisper among its sacred stones; and on every crag its forming and
fading veil of radiant cloud; temple above temple, of the divine marble
that no tool can pollute, nor ruin undermine. And, therefore, beyond
this central valley, this great Greek vase of Arcadia, on the "hollow"
mountain, Cyllene, or "pregnant" mountain, called also "cold," because
there the vapors rest,* and born of the eldest of those stars of spring,
that Maia, from whom your own month of May has its name, bringing to you,
in the green of her garlands, and the white of her hawthorn, the
unrecognized symbols of the pastures and the wreathed snows of Arcadia,
where long ago she was queen of stars: there, first cradled and wrapt in
swaddling-clothes; then raised, in a moment of surprise, into his
wandering power,--is born the shepherd of the clouds, winged-footed and
deceiving,--blinding the eyes of Argus,--escaping from the grasp of
Apollo--restless messenger between the highest sky and topmost earth--
"the herald Mercury, new lighted on a heaven-kissing hill."

* On the altar of Hermes on its summit, as on that of the Lacinian Hera,
no wind ever stirred the ashes. By those altars, the Gods of Heaven were
appeased, and all their storms at rest.

27. Now, it will be wholly impossible, at present, to trace for you any
of the minor Greek expressions of this thought, except only that Mercury,
as the cloud shepherd, is especially called Eriophoros, the wool-bearer.
You will recollect the name from the common woolly rush "eriophorum"
which has a cloud of silky seed; and note also that he wears
distinctively the flap cap, petasos, named from a word meaning "to
expand;" which shaded from the sun, and is worn on journeys. You have
the epithet of mountains "cloud-capped" as an established form with every
poet, and the Mont Pilate of Lucerne is named from a Latin word
signifying specially a woollen cap; but Mercury has, besides, a general
Homeric epithet, curiously and intensely concentrated in meaning, "the
profitable or serviceable by wool,"* that is to say, by shepherd wealth;
hence, "pecuniarily," rich or serviceable, and so he passes at last into
a general mercantile deity; while yet the cloud sense of the wool is
retained by Homer always, so that he gives him this epithet when it would
otherwise have been quite meaningless (in Iliad, xxiv. 440), when he
drives Priam's chariot, and breathes force into his horses, precisely as
we shall find Athena drive Diomed; and yet the serviceable and profitable
sense--and something also of gentle and soothing character in the mere
wool-softness, as used for dress, and religious rites--is retained also
in the epithet, and thus the gentle and serviceable Hermes is opposed to
the deceitful one.

* I am convinced that the 'eri' in 'eriounios' is not intensitive, but
retained from 'erion'; but even if I am wrong in thinking this, the
mistake is of no consequence with respect to the general force of the
term as meaning the profitableness of Hermes. Athena's epithet of
'ageleia' has a parallel significance. [Transcriber's note: words inside
single apostrophes are Greek, and use the Greek alphabet.]

28. In connection with this driving of Priam's chariot, remember that
as Autolycus is the son of Hermes the Deceiver, Myrtilus (the Auriga
of the Stars) is the son of Hermes the Guide. The name Hermes itself
means impulse; and he is especially the shepherd of the flocks of the
sky, in driving, or guiding, or stealing them; and yet his great
name, Argeiphontes, not only--as in different passages of the olden
poets--means "Shining White," which is said of him as being himself the
silver cloud lighted by the sun; but "Argus-killer," the killer of
rightness, which is said of him as he veils the sky, and especially the
stars, which are the eyes of Argus; or, literally, eyes of brightness,
which Juno, who is, with Jupiter, part of the type of highest heaven,
keeps in her peacock's train. We know that this interpretation is
right, from a passage in which Euripides describes the shield of
Hippomedon, which bore for his sign, "Argus the all-seeing, covered
with eyes; open towards the rising of the stars and closed towards
their setting."

And thus Hermes becomes the spirit of the movement of the sky or
firmament; not merely the fast flying of the transitory cloud, but the
great motion of the heavens and stars themselves. Thus, in his highest
power, he corresponds to the "primo mobile" of the later Italian
philosophy, and, in his simplest, is the guide of all mysterious and
cloudy movement, and of all successful subtleties. Perhaps the prettiest
minor recognition of his character is when, on the night foray of Ulysses
and Diomed, Ulysses wear the helmet stolen by Autolycus, the son of

29. The position in the Greek mind of Hermes as the lord of cloud is,
however, more mystic and ideal than that of any other deity, just on
account of the constant and real presence of the cloud itself under
different forms, giving rise to all kinds of minor fables. The play of
the Greek imagination in this direction is so wide and complex, that I
cannot give you an outline of its range in my present limits. There is
first a great series of storm-legends connected with the family of the
historic AEolus centralized by the story of Athamas, with his two wives,
"the Cloud," and the "White Goddess," ending in that of Phrixus and
Helle, and of the golden fleece (which is only the cloud-burden of Hermes
Eriophoros). With this, there is the fate of Salmoneus, and the
destruction of the Glaucus by his own horses; all these minor myths of
storm concentrating themselves darkly into the legend of Bellerophon and
the Chimaera, in which there is an under story about the vain subduing of
passion and treachery, and the end of life in fading melancholy,--which,
I hope, not many of you could understand even were I to show it you (the
merely physical meaning of the Chimaera is the cloud of volcanic lightning
connected wholly with earth-fire, but resembling the heavenly cloud in
its height and its thunder). Finally, in the AEolic group, there is the
legend of Sisypus, which I mean to work out thoroughly by itself; its
root is in the position of Corinth as ruling the isthmus and the two seas
--the Corinthean Acropolis, two thousand feet high, being the centre of
the crossing currents of the winds, and of the commerce of Greece.
Therefore, Athena, and the fountain-cloud Pegasus, are more closely
connected with Corinth than even with Athens in their material, though
not in their moral, power; and Sisyphus founds the Isthmian games in
connection with a melancholy story about the sea gods; but he himself is
'kerdotos andron', the most "gaining" and subtle of men; who having the
key of the Isthmus, becomes the type of transit, transfer, or trade, as
such; and of the apparent gain from it, which is not gain; and this is
the real meaning of his punishment in hell--eternal toil and recoil (the
modern idol of capital being, indeed, the stone of Sisyphus with a
vengeance, crushing in its recoil). But, throughout, the old ideas of
the cloud power and cloud feebleness,--the deceit of its hiding,--and the
emptiness of its banishing,--the Autolycus enchantment of making black
seem white,--and the disappointed fury of Ixion (taking shadow for
power), mingle in the moral meaning of this and its collateral legends;
and give an aspect, at last, not only of foolish cunning, but of impiety
or literal "idolatry," "imagination worship," to the dreams of avarice
and injustice, until this notion of atheism and insolent blindness
becomes principal; and the "Clouds" of Aristophanes, with the personified
"just" and "unjust" sayings in the latter part of the play, foreshadow,
almost feature by feature, in all that they were written to mock and to
chastise, the worst elements of the impious "'dinos'" and tumult in men's
thoughts, which have followed on their avarice in the present day, making
them alike forsake the laws of their ancient gods, and misapprehended or
reject the true words of their existing teachers.

30. All this we have from the legends of the historic AEolus only; but,
besides these, there is the beautiful story of Semele, the mother of
Bacchus. She is the cloud with the strength of the vine in its bosom,
consumed by the light which matures the fruit; the melting away of the
cloud into the clean air at the fringe of its edges being exquisitely
rendered by Pindar's epithet for her, Semele, "with the stretched-out
hair" ('tauuetheira'.) Then there is the entire tradition of the
Danaides, and of the tower of Danae and golden shower; the birth of
Perseus connecting this legend with that of the Gorgons and Graiae, who
are the true clouds of thunderous ruin and tempest. I must, in passing,
mark for you that the form of the sword or sickle of Perseus, with which
he kills Medusa, is another image of the whirling harpy vortex, and
belongs especially to the sword of destruction or annihilation; whence it
is given to the two angels who gather for destruction the evil harvest
and evil vintage of the earth (Rev. xiv. 15). I will collect afterwards
and complete what I have already written respecting the Pegasean and
Gorgonian legends, noting here only what is necessary to explain the
central myth of Athena herself, who represents the ambient air, which
included all cloud, and rain, and dew, and darkness, and peace, and wrath
of heaven. Let me now try to give you, however briefly, some distinct
idea of the several agencies of this great goddess.

31. I. She is the air giving life and health to all animals.
II. She is the air giving vegetative power to the earth.
III. She is the air giving motion to the sea, and rendering
navigation possible.
IV. She is the air nourishing artificial light, torch or lamplight;
as opposed to that of the sun, on one hand, and of consuming*
fire on the other.
V. She is the air conveying vibration of sound.

* Not a scientific, but a very practical and expressive distinction.

I will give you instances of her agency in all these functions.

32. First, and chiefly, she is air as the spirit of life, giving
vitality to the blood. Her psychic relation to the vital force in matter
lies deeper, and we will examine it afterwards; but a great number of the
most interesting passages in Homer regard her as flying over the earth in
local and transitory strength, simply and merely the goddess of fresh

It is curious that the British city which has somewhat saucily styled
itself the Modern Athens is indeed more under her especial tutelage and
favor in this respect than perhaps any other town in the island. Athena
is first simply what in the Modern Athens you practically find her, the
breeze of the mountain and the sea; and wherever she comes, there is
purification, and health, and power. The sea-beach round this isle of
ours is the frieze of our Parthenon; every wave that breaks on it
thunders with Athena's voice; nay, wherever you throw your window wide
open in the morning, you let in Athena, as wisdom and fresh air at the
same instant; and whenever you draw a pure, long, full breath of right
heaven, you take Athena into your heart, through your blood; and, with
the blood, into the thoughts of your brain.

Now, this giving of strength by the air, observe, is mechanical as well
as chemical. You cannot strike a good blow but with your chest full;
and, in hand to hand fighting, it is not the muscle that fails first, it
is the breath; the longest-breathed will, on the average, be the victor,
--not the strongest. Note how Shakespeare always leans on this. Of
Mortimer, in "changing hardiment with great Glendower":

"Three times they breathed, and three times did they drink,
Upon agreement, of swift Severn's flood."

And again, Hotspur, sending challenge to Prince Harry:

"That none might draw short breath to-day
But I and Harry Monmouth."

Again, of Hamlet, before he receives his wound:

"He's fat, and scant of breath."

Again, Orlando in the wrestling:

"Yes; I beseech your grace
I am not yet well breathed."

Now, of all the people that ever lived, the Greeks knew best what breath
meant, both in exercise and in battle, and therefore the queen of the air
becomes to them at once the queen of bodily strength in war; not mere
brutal muscular strength,--that belongs to Ares,--but the strength of
young lives passed in pure air and swift exercise,--Camilla's virginal
force, that "flies o'er the unbending corn, and skims along the main."

33. Now I will rapidly give you two or three instances of her direct
agency in this function. First, when she wants to make Penelope bright
and beautiful; and to do away with the signs of her waiting and her
grief. "Then Athena thought of another thing; she laid her into a deep
sleep, and loosed all her limbs, and made her taller, and made her
smoother, and fatter, and whiter than sawn ivory; and breathed ambrosial
brightness over her face; and so she left her and went up to heaven."
Fresh air and sound sleep at night, young ladies! You see you may have
Athena for lady's maid whenever you choose. Next, hark how she gives
strength to Achilles when he is broken with fasting and grief. Jupiter
pities him and says to her, "'Daughter mine, are you forsaking your own
soldier, and don't you care for Achilles any more? See how hungry and
weak he is,--go and feed him with ambrosia.' So he urged the eager
Athena; and she leaped down out of heaven like a harpy falcon,
shrill-voiced; and she poured nectar and ambrosia, full of delight, into
the breast of Achilles, that his limbs might not fail with famine; then
she returned to the solid dome of her strong father." And then comes the
great passage about Achilles arming--for which we have no time. But here
is again Athena giving strength to the whole Greek army. She came as a
falcon to Achilles, straight at him, a sudden drift of breeze; but to the
army she must come widely, she sweeps around them all. "As when Jupiter
spreads the purple rainbow over heaven, portending battle or cold storm,
so Athena, wrapping herself round with a purple cloud, stooped to the
Greek soldiers, and raised up each of them." Note that purple, in
Homer's use of it, nearly always means "fiery," "full of light." It is
the light of the rainbow, not the color of it, which Homer means you to
think of.

34. But the most curious passage of all, and fullest of meaning, is when
she gives strength to Menelaus, that he may stand unwearied against
Hector. He prays to her: "And blue-eyed Athena was glad that he prayed
to her, first; and she gave him strength in his shoulders, and in his
limbs, an she gave him the courage"--of what animal, do you suppose? Had
it been Neptune or Mars, they would have given him the courage of a bull,
or a lion; but Athena gives him the courage of the most fearless in
attack of all creatures, small or great, and very small it is, but wholly
incapable of terror,--she gives him the courage of a fly.

35. Now this simile of Homer's is one of the best instances I can give
you of the way in which great writers seize truths unconsciously which
are for all time. It is only recent science which has completely shown
the perfectness of this minute symbol of the power of Athena; proving
that the insect's flight and breath are co-ordinated; that its wings are
actually forcing-pumps, of which the stroke compels the thoracic
respiration; and that it thus breathes and flies simultaneously by the
action of the same muscles, so that respiration is carried on most
vigorously during flight, "while the air-vessels, supplied by many pairs
of lungs instead of one, traverse the organs of flight in far greater
numbers than the capillary blood-vessels of our own system, and give
enormous and untiring muscular power, a rapidity of action measured by
thousands of strokes in the minute, and an endurance, by miles and hours
of flight."*

* Ormerod: "Natural History of Wasps."

Homer could not have known this; neither that the buzzing of the fly
was produced, as in a wind instrument, by a constant current of air
through the trachea. But he had seen, and, doubtless, meant us to
remember, the marvellous strength and swiftness of the insect's flight
(the glance of the swallow itself is clumsy and slow compared to the
darting of common house-flies at play); he probably attributed its
murmur to the wings, but in this also there was a type of what we shall
presently find recognized in the name of Pallas,--the vibratory power
of the air to convey sound, while, as a purifying creature, the fly holds
its place beside the old symbol of Athena in Egypt, the vulture; and as
a venomous and tormenting creature has more than the strength of the
serpent in proportion to its size, being thus entirely representative
of the influence of the air both in purification and pestilence; and its
courage is so notable that, strangely enough, forgetting Homer's simile,
I happened to take the fly for an expression of the audacity of freedom
in speaking of quite another subject.* Whether it should be called
courage, or mere mechanical instinct, may be questioned, but assuredly
no other animal, exposed to continual danger, is so absolutely without
sign of fear.

* See farther on, sec. 148, pp. 154-156.

36. You will, perhaps, have still patience to hear two instances, not of
the communication as strength, but of the personal agency of Athena as
the air. When she comes down to help Diomed against Ares, she does not
come to fight instead of him, but she takes his charioteer's place.

"She snatched the reins, she lashed with all her force,
And full on Mars impelled the foaming horse."

Ares is the first to cast his spear; then--note this--Pope says:

"Pallas opposed her hand, and caused to glance,
Far from the car, the strong immortal lance."

She does not oppose her hand in the Greek--the wind could not meet the
lance straight--she catches it in her hand, and throws it off. There is
no instance in which a lance is so parried by a mortal hand in all the
Iliad, and it is exactly the way the wind would parry it, catching it,
and turning it aside. If there are any good rifleshots here, they know
something about Athena's parrying; and in old times the English masters
of feathered artillery knew more yet. Compare also the turning of
Hector's lance from Achilles: Iliad, xx. 439.

37. The last instance I will give you is as lovely as it is subtile.
Throughout the Iliad, Athena is herself the will or Menis of Achilles.
If he is to be calmed, it is she who calms him; if angered, it is she
who inflames him. In the first quarrel with Atreides, when he stands at
pause, with the great sword half drawn, "Athena came from heaven, and
stood behind him and caught him by the yellow hair." Another god would
have stayed his hand upon the hilt, but Athena only lifts his hair. "And
he turned and knew her, and her dreadful eyes shone upon him." There is
an exquisite tenderness in this laying her hand upon his hair, for it is
the talisman of his life, vowed to his own Thessalian river if he ever
returned to its shore, and cast upon Patroclus' pile, so ordaining that
there should be no return.

38. Secondly, Athena is the air giving vegetative impulse to the earth.
She is the wind and the rain, and yet more the pure air itself, getting
at the earth fresh turned by spade or plough, and, above all, feeding the
fresh leaves; for though the Greeks knew nothing about carbonic acid,
they did know that trees fed on the air.

Now, note first in this, the myth of the air getting at ploughed land.
You know I told you the Lord of all labor by which man lived was
Hephaestus; therefore Athena adopts a child of his, and of the Earth,--
Erichthonius,--literally, "the tearer up of the ground," who is the head
(though not in direct line) of the kings of Attica; and, having adopted
him, she gives him to be brought up by the three nymphs of the dew. Of
these, Aglauros, the dweller in the fields, is the envy or malice of the
earth; she answers nearly to the envy of Cain, the tiller of the ground,
against his shepherd brother, in her own envy against her two sisters,
Herse, the cloud dew, who is the beloved of the shepherd Mercury; and
Pandrosos, the diffused dew, or dew of heaven. Literally, you have in
this myth the words of the blessing of Esau: "Thy dwelling shall be of
the fatness of the earth, and of the dew of heaven from above." Aglauros
is for her envy turned into a black stone; and hers is one of the voices
--the other being that of Cain--which haunts the circle of envy in the

"Io sono Aglauro, chi divenne sasso."

But to her two sisters, with Erichthonius (or the hero Erectheus), is
built the most sacred temple of Athena in Athens; the temple to their own
dearest Athena--to her, and to the dew together; so that it was divided
into two parts: one, the temple of Athena of the city, and the other that
of the dew. And this expression of her power, as the air bringing the
dew to the hill pastures, in the central temple of the central city of
the heathen, dominant over the future intellectual world, is, of all the
facts connected with her worship as the spirit of life, perhaps the most
important. I have no time now to trace for you the hundredth part of the
different ways in which it bears both upon natural beauty, and on the
best order and happiness of men's lives. I hope to follow out some of
these trains of thought in gathering together what I have to say about
field herbage; but I must say briefly here that the great sign, to the
Greeks, of the coming of spring in the pastures, was not, as with us, in
the primrose, but in the various flowers of the asphodel tribe (of which
I will give you some separate account presently); therefore it is that
the earth answers with crocus flame to the cloud on Ida; and the power
of Athena in eternal life is written by the light of the asphodel on the
Elysian fields.

But further, Athena is the air, not only to the lilies of the field, but
to the leaves of the forest. We saw before the reason why Hermes is said
to be the son of Maia, the eldest of the sister stars of spring. Those
stars are called not only Pleiades, but Vergiliae, from a word mingling
the ideas of the turning or returning of springtime with the outpouring
of rain. The mother of Vergil bearing the name of Maia, Vergil himself
received his name from the seven stars; and he, forming first the mind of
Dante, and through him that of Chaucer (besides whatever special minor
influence came from the Pastorals and Georgics) became the fountainhead
of all the best literary power connected with the love of vegetative
nature among civilized races of men. Take the fact for what it is worth;
still it is a strange seal of coincidence, in word and in reality, upon
the Greek dream of the power over human life, and its purest thoughts, in
the stars of spring. But the first syllable of the name of Vergil has
relation also to another group of words, of which the English ones,
virtue and virgin, bring down the force to modern days. It is a group
containing mainly the idea of "spring," or increase of life in
vegetation--the rising of the new branch of the tree out of the bud, and
of the new leaf out of the ground. It involves, secondarily, the idea
of greenness and of strength, but, primarily, that of living increase of
a new rod from a stock, stem, or root ("There shall come forth a rod out
of the stem of Jesse"); and chiefly the stem of certain plants--either of
the rose tribe, as in the budding of the almond rod of Aaron; or of the
olive tribe, which has triple significance in this symbolism, from the
use of its oil for sacred anointing, for strength in the gymnasium, and
for light. Hence, in numberless divided and reflected ways, it is
connected with the power of Hercules and Athena: Hercules plants the wild
olive, for its shade, on the course of Olympia, and it thenceforward
gives the Olympic crown of consummate honor and rest; while the prize at
the Panathenaic games is a vase of its oil (meaning encouragement to
continuance of effort); and from the paintings on these Panathenaic vases
we get the most precious clue to the entire character of Athena. Then to
express its propagation by slips, the trees from which the oil was to be
taken were called "Moriai," trees of division (being all descendents of
the sacred one in the Erechtheum). And thus, in one direction, we get to
the "children like olive plants round about thy table" and the olive
grafting of St. Paul; while the use of the oil for anointing gives chief
name to the rod itself of the stem of Jesse, and to all those who were by
that name signed for his disciples first in Antioch. Remember, further,
since that name was first given the influence of the symbol, both in
extreme unction and in consecration of priests and kings to their "divine
right;" and thing, if you can reach with any grasp of thought, what the
influence on the earth has been, of those twisted branches whose leaves
give gray bloom to the hillsides under every breeze that blows from the
midland sea. But, above and beyond all, think how strange it is that the
chief Agonia of humanity, and the chief giving of strength from heaven
for its fulfilment, should have been under its night shadow in Palestine.

39. Thirdly, Athena is the air in its power over the sea.

On the earliest Panathenaic vase known--the "Burgon" vase in the British
museum--Athena has a dolphin on her shield. The dolphin has two
principal meanings in Greek symbolism. It means, first, the sea;
secondarily, the ascending and descending course of any of the heavenly
bodies from one sea horizon to another--the dolphins' arching rise and
replunge (in a summer evening, out of calm sea, their black backs roll
round with exactly the slow motion of a water-wheel; but I do not know
how far Aristotle's exaggerated account of their leaping or their
swiftness has any foundation) being taken as a type of the emergence
of the sun or stars from the sea in the east, and plunging beneath in the
west. Hence, Apollo, when in his personal power he crosses the sea,
leading his Cretan colonists to Pytho, takes the form of a dolphin,
becomes Apollo Delphinius, and names the founded colony "Delphi." The
lovely drawing of the Delphic Apollo on the hydria of the Vatican (Le
Normand and De Witte, vol. ii. p. 6) gives the entire conception of this
myth. Again, the beautiful coins of Tarentum represent Taras coming to
found the city, riding on a dolphin, whose leaps and plunges have partly
the rage of the sea in them, and partly the spring of the horse, because
the splendid riding of the Tarentines had made their name proverbial in
Magna Graeca. The story of Arion is a collateral fragment of the same
thought; and, again, the plunge, before their transformation, of the
ships of AEneas. Then, this idea of career upon, or conquest of, or by
dolphin-like ships (compare the Merlin prophecy,

"They shall ride
Over ocean wide
With hempen bridle, ad horse of tree,")

connects itself with the thought of undulation, and of the wave-power in
the sea itself, which is always expressed by the serpentine bodies either
of the sea-gods or of the sea-horse; and when Athena carries, as she does
often in later work, a serpent for her shield-sign, it is not so much the
repetition of her own aegis-snakes as the further expression of her power
over the sea-wave; which, finally, Vergil gives in its perfect unity with
her own anger, in the approach of the serpents against Laocooen from the
sea; and then, finally, when her own storm-power is fully put forth on
the ocean also, and the madness of the aegis-snake is give to the
wave-snake, the sea-wave becomes the devouring hound at the waist of
Scylla, and Athena takes Scylla for her helmet-crest; while yet her
beneficent and essential power on the ocean, in making navigation
possible, is commemorated in the Panathenaic festival by her peplus being
carried to the Erechtheum suspended from the mast of a ship.

In Plate cxv. of vol. ii, Le Normand, are given two sides of a vase,
which, in rude and childish ways, assembles most of the principal
thoughts regarding Athena in this relation. In the first, the sunrise is
represented by the ascending chariot of Apollo, foreshortened; the light
is supposed to blind the eyes, and no face of the god is seen (Turner, in
the Ulysses and Polyphemus sunrise, loses the form of the god in light,
giving the chariot-horses only; rendering in his own manner, after 2,200
years of various fall and revival of the arts, precisely the same thought
as the old Greek potter). He ascends out of the sea; but the sea itself
has not yet caught the light. In the second design, Athena as the
morning breeze, and Hermes as the morning cloud, fly over the sea before
the sun. Hermes turns back his head; his face is unseen in the cloud, as
Apollo's in the light; the grotesque appearance of an animal's face is
only the cloud-phantasm modifying a frequent form of the hair of Hermes
beneath the back of his cap. Under the morning breeze, the dolphins leap
from the rippled sea, and their sides catch the light.

The coins of the Lucanian Heracleia give a fair representation of the
helmed Athena, as imagined in later Greek art, with the embossed Scylla.

40. Fourthly, Athena is the air nourishing artificial light--unconsuming
fire. Therefore, a lamp was always kept burning in the Erechtheum; and
the torch-race belongs chiefly to her festival, of which the meaning is
to show the danger of the perishing of the light even by excess of the
air that nourishes it; and so that the race is not to the swift, but to
the wise. The household use of her constant light is symbolized in the
lovely passage in the Odyssey, where Ulysses and his son move the armor
while the servants are shut in their chambers, and there is no one to
hold the torches for them; but Athena herself, "having a golden lamp,"
fills all the rooms with light. Her presence in war-strength with her
favorite heroes is always shown by the "unwearied" fire hovering on their
helmets and shields; and the image gradually becomes constant and
accepted, both for the maintenance of household watchfulness, as in the
parable of the ten virgins, or as the symbol of direct inspiration, in
the rushing wind and divided flames of Pentecost; but together with this
thought of unconsuming and constant fire, there is always mingled in the
Greek mind the sense of the consuming by excess, as of the flame by the
air, so also of the inspired creature by its own fire (thus, again, "the
zeal of thine house hath eaten me up"--"my zeal hath consumed me, because
of thine enemies," and the like); and especially Athena has this aspect
towards the truly sensual and bodily strength; so that to Ares, who is
himself insane and consuming, the opposite wisdom seems to be insane and
consuming: "All we the other gods have thee against us, O Jove! when we
would give grace to men; for thou hast begotten the maid without a mind--
the mischievous creature, the doer of unseemly evil. All we obey thee,
and are ruled by thee. Her only thou wilt not resist in anything she
says or does, because thou didst bear her--consuming child as she is."

41. Lastly, Athena is the air conveying vibration of sound.

In all the loveliest representations in central Greek art of the birth
of Athena, Apollo stands close to the sitting Jupiter, singing, with a
deep, quiet joyfulness, to his lyre. The sun is always thought of as the
master of time and rhythm, and as the origin of the composing and
inventive discovery of melody; but the air, as the actual element and
substance of the voice, the prolonging and sustaining power of it, and
the symbol of its moral passion. Whatever in music is measured and
designed belongs therefore to Apollo and the Muses; whatever is impulsive
and passionate, to Athena; hence her constant strength a voice or cry (as
when she aids the shout of Achilles) curiously opposed to the dumbness of
Demeter. The Apolline lyre, therefore, is not so much the instrument
producing sound, as its measurer and divider by length or tension of
string into given notes; and I believe it is, in a double connection with
its office as a measurer of time or motion and its relation to the
transit of the sun in the sky, that Hermes forms it from the
tortoise-shell, which is the image of the dappled concave of the cloudy
sky. Thenceforward all the limiting or restraining modes of music belong
to the Muses; but the more passionate music is wind music, as in the
Doric flute. Then, when this inspired music becomes degraded in its
passion, it sinks into the pipe of Pan, and the double pipe of Marsyas,
and is then rejected by Athena. The myth which represents her doing so
is that she invented the double pipe from hearing the hiss of the
Gorgonian serpents; but when she played upon it, chancing to see her face
reflected in water, she saw that it was distorted, whereupon she threw
down the flute which Marsyas found. Then, the strife of Apollo and
Marsyas represents the enduring contest between music in which the words
and thought lead, and the lyre measures or melodizes them (which Pindar
means when he calls his hymns "kings over the lyre"), and music in which
the words are lost and the wind or impulse leads,--generally, therefore,
between intellectual, and brutal, or meaningless, music. Therefore, when
Apollo prevails, he flays Marsyas, taking the limit and external bond of
his shape from him, which is death, without touching the mere muscular
strength, yet shameful and dreadful in dissolution.

42. And the opposition of these two kinds of sound is continually dwelt
upon by the Greek philosophers, the real fact at the root of all music is
the natural expression of a lofty passion for a right cause; that in
proportion to the kingliness and force of any personality, the expression
either of its joy or suffering becomes measured, chastened, calm, and
capable of interpretation only by the majesty of ordered, beautiful, and
worded sound. Exactly in proportion to the degree in which we become
narrow in the cause and conception of our passions, incontinent in the
utterance of them, feeble of perseverance in them, sullied or shameful in
the indulgence of them, their expression by musical sound becomes broken,
mean, fatuitous, and at last impossible; the measured waves of the air of
heaven will not lend themselves to expression of ultimate vice, it must
be forever sunk into discordance or silence. And since, as before
stated, every work of right art has a tendency to reproduce the ethical
state which first developed it, this, which of all the arts is most
directly in power of discipline; the first, the simplest, the most
effective of all instruments of moral instruction; while in the failure
and betrayal of its functions, it becomes the subtlest aid of moral
degradation. Music is thus, in her health, the teacher of perfect order,
and is the voice of the obedience of angels, and the companion of the
course of the spheres of heaven; and in her depravity she is also the
teacher of perfect disorder and disobedience, and the Gloria in Excelsis
becomes the Marseillaise. In the third section of this volume, I reprint
two chapters from another essay of mine ("The Cestus of Aglaia"), on
modesty or measure, and on liberty, containing further reference to music
in her two powers; and I do this now, because, among the many monstrous
and misbegotten fantasies which are the spawn of modern license, perhaps
the most impishly opposite to the truth is the conception of music which
has rendered possible the writing, by educated persons, and, more
strangely yet, the tolerant criticism, of such words as these: "This so
persuasive art is the only one that has no didactic efficacy, that
engenders no emotions save such as are without issue on the side of moral
truth, that expresses nothing of God, nothing of reason, nothing of human
liberty." I will not give the author's name; the passage is quoted in
the "Westminster Review" for last January [1869].

43. I must also anticipate something of what I have to say respecting
the relation of the power of Athena to organic life, so far as to note
that her name, Pallas, probably refers to the quivering or vibration of
the air; and to its power, whether as vital force, or communicated wave,
over every kind of matter, in giving it vibratory movement; first, and
most intense, in the voice and throat of the bird, which is the air
incarnate; and so descending through the various orders of animal life to
the vibrating and semi-voluntary murmur of the insect; and, lower still,
to the hiss or quiver of the tail of the half-lunged snake and deaf
adder; all these, nevertheless, being wholly under the rule of Athena as
representing either breath or vital nervous power; and, therefore, also,
in their simplicity, the "oaten pipe and pastoral song," which belong to
her dominion over the asphodel meadows, and breathe on their banks of

Finally, is it not strange to think of the influence of this one power of
Pallas in vibration (we shall see a singular mechanical energy of it
presently in the serpent's motion), in the voices of war and peace? How
much of the repose, how much of the wrath, folly, and misery of men, has
literally depended on this one power of the air; on the sound of the
trumpet and of the bell, on the lark's song, and the bee's murmur!

44. Such is the general conception in the Greek mind of the physical
power of Athena. The spiritual power associated with it is of two kinds:
first, she is the Spirit of Life in material organism; not strength in
the blood only, but formative energy in the clay; and, secondly, she is
inspired and impulsive wisdom in human conduct and human art, giving the
instinct of infallible decision, and of faultless invention.

It is quite beyond the scope of my present purpose--and, indeed, will
only be possible for me at all after marking the relative intention of
the Apolline myths--to trace for you the Greek conception of Athena as
the guide of moral passion. But I will at least endeavor, on some near
occasion,* to define some of the actual truths respecting the vital force
in created organism, and inventive fancy in the works of man, which are
more or less expressed by the Greeks, under the personality of Athena.
You would, perhaps, hardly bear with me if I endeavored further to show
you--what is nevertheless perfectly true--the analogy between the
spiritual power of Athena in her gentle ministry, yet irresistible anger,
with the ministry of anther Spirit whom we also, holding for the
universal power of life, are forbidden, at our worst peril, to quench or
to grieve.

* I have tried to do this in mere outline in the two following sections
of this volume.

45. But, I think, to-night, you should not let me close without
requiring of me an answer on one vital point, namely, how far these
imaginations of gods--which are vain to us--were vain to those who had
no better trust? and what real belief the Greek had in these creations
of his own spirit, practical and helpful to him in the sorrow of earth?
I am able to answer you explicitly in this. The origin of his thoughts
is often obscure, and we may err in endeavoring to account or their form
of realization; but the effect of that realization on his life is not
obscure at all. The Greek creed was, of course, different in its
character, as our own creed is, according to the class of persons who
held it. The common people's was quite literal, simple, and happy; their
idea of Athena was as clear as a good Roman Catholic peasant's idea of
the Madonna. In Athens itself, the centre of thought and refinement,
Pisistratus obtained the reins of government through the ready belief of
the populace that a beautiful woman, armed like Athena, was the goddess
herself. Even at the close of the last century some of this simplicity
remained among the inhabitants of the Greek islands; and when a pretty
English lady first made her way into the grotto of Antiparos, she was
surrounded, on her return, by all the women of the neighboring village,
believing her to be divine, and praying her to heal them of their

46. Then, secondly, the creed of the upper classes was more refined and
spiritual, but quite as honest, and even more forcible in its effect on
the life. You might imagine that the employment of the artifice just
referred to implied utter unbelief in the persons contriving it; but it
really meant only that the more worldly of them would play with a popular
faith of their own purposes, as doubly-minded persons have often done
since, all the while sincerely holding the same ideas themselves in a
more abstract form; while the good and unworldly men, the true Greek
heroes, lived by their faith as firmly as St. Louis, or the Cid, or the
Chevalier Bayard.

47. Then, thirdly, the faith of the poets and artists was, necessarily,
less definite, being continually modified by the involuntary action of
their own fancies; and by the necessity of presenting, in clear verbal or
material form, things of which they had no authoritative knowledge.
Their faith was, in some respects like Dante's or Milton's: firm in
general conception, but not able to vouch for every detail in the forms
they gave it; but they went considerably farther, even in that minor
sincerity, than subsequent poets; and strove with all their might to be
as near the truth as they could. Pindar says, quite simply, "I cannot
think so-and-so of the gods. It must have been this way--it cannot have
been that way--that the thing was done." And as late among the Latins as
the days of Horace, this sincerity remains. Horace is just as true and
simple in his religion as Wordsworth; but all power of understanding any
of the honest classic poets has been taken away from most English
gentlemen by the mechanical drill in verse-writing at school. Throughout
the whole of their lives afterwards, they never can get themselves quit
of the notion that all verses were written as an exercise, and that
Minerva was only a convenient word for the last of a hexameter, and
Jupiter for the last but one.

48. It is impossible that any notion can be more fallacious or more
misleading in its consequences. All great song, from the first day when
human lips contrived syllables, has been sincere song. With deliberate
didactic purpose the tragedians--with pure and native passion the lyrists
--fitted their perfect words to their dearest faiths. "Operosa parvus
carmina fingo." "I, little thing that I am, weave my laborious songs" as
earnestly as the bee among the bells of thyme on the Matin mountains. Yes,
and he dedicates his favorite pine to Diana, and he chants his autumnal
hymn to the Faun that guards his fields, and he guides the noble youth and
maids of Rome in their choir to Apollo, and he tells the farmer's little
girl that the gods will love her, though she has only a handful of salt
and meal to give them--just as earnestly as ever English gentleman taught
Christian faith to English youth in England's truest days.

49. Then, lastly, the creed of the philosophers of sages varied
according to the character and knowledge of each; their relative
acquaintance with the secrets of natural science, their intellectual and
sectarian egotism, and their mystic or monastic tendencies, for there is
a classic as well as a mediaeval monasticism. They end in losing the life
of Greece in play upon words; but we owe to their early thought some of
the soundest ethics, and the foundation of the best practical laws, yet
known to mankind.

50. Such was the general vitality of the heathen creed in its strength.
Of its direct influence on conduct, it is, as I said, impossible for me
to speak now; only, remember always, in endeavoring to form a judgment of
it, that what of good or right the heathens did, they did looking for no
reward. The purest forms of our own religion have always consisted in
sacrificing less things to win greater, time to win eternity, the world
to win the skies. The order, "Sell that thou hast," is not given without
the promise, "Thou shalt have treasure in heaven;" and well for the
modern Christian if he accepts the alternative as his Master left it, and
does not practically read the command and promise thus: "Sell that thou
hast in the best market, and thou shalt have treasure in eternity also."
But the poor Greeks of the great ages expected no reward from heaven but
honor, and no reward from earth but rest; though, when, on those
conditions, they patiently, and proudly, fulfilled their task of the
granted day, an unreasoning instinct of an immortal benediction broke
from their lips in song; and they, even they, had sometimes a prophet to
tell them of a land "where there is sun alike by day and alike by night,
where they shall need no more to trouble the earth by strength of hands
for daily bread; but the ocean breezes blow around the blessed islands,
and golden flowers burn on their bright trees for evermore."



(Athena in the Earth.)

* "Athena, fit for being made into pottery." I coin the expression as a
counterpart of 'ge parthenia', "Clay intact."


51. It has been easy to decipher approximately the Greek conception of
the physical power of Athena in cloud and sky, because we know ourselves
what clouds and skies are, and what the force of the wind is in forming
them. But it is not at all easy to trace the Greek thoughts about the
power of Athena in giving life, because we do not ourselves know clearly
what life is, or in what way the air is necessary to it, or what there
is, besides the air, shaping the forms that it is put into. And it is
comparatively of small consequence to find out what the Greeks thought
or meant, until we have determined what we ourselves think, or mean, when
we translate the Greek word for "breathing" into the Latin-English word

52. But it is of great consequence that you should fix in your minds--
and hold, against the baseness of mere materialism on the one hand, and
against the fallacies of controversial speculation on the other--the
certain and practical sense of this word "spirit;" the sense in which you
all know that its reality exists, as the power which shaped you into your
shape, and by which you love and hate when you have received that shape.
You need not fear, on the one hand, that either the sculpturing or the
loving power can ever be beaten down by the philosophers into a metal, or
evolved by them into a gas; but on the other hand, take care that you
yourself, in trying to elevate your conception of it, do not lose its
truth in a dream, or even in a word. Beware always of contending for
words: you will find them not easy to grasp, if you know them in several
languages. This very word, which is so solemn in your mouths, is one of
the most doubtful. In Latin it means little more than breathing, and may
mean merely accent; in French it is not breath, but wit, and our
neighbors are therefore obliged, even in their most solemn expressions,
to say "wit" when we say "ghost." In Greek, "pneuma," the word we
translate "ghost," means either wind or breath, and the relative word
"psyche" has, perhaps, a more subtle power; yet St. Paul's words
"pneumatic body" and "psychic body" involve a difference in his mind
which no words will explain. But in Greek and in English, and in Saxon
and in Hebrew, and in every articulate tongue of humanity the "spirit of
man" truly means his passion and virtue, and is stately according to the
height of his conception, and stable according to the measure of his

53. Endurance, or patience, that is the central sign of spirit; a
constancy against the cold and agony of death; and as, physically, it is
by the burning power of the air that the heat of the flesh is sustained,
so this Athena, spiritually, is the queen of all glowing virtue, the
unconsuming fire and inner lamp of life. And thus, as Hephaestus is lord
of the fire of the hand, and Apollo of the fire of the brain, so Athena
of the fire of the heart; and as Hercules wears for his chief armor the
skin of the Nemean lion, his chief enemy, whom he slew; and Apollo has
for his highest name "the Pythian," from his chief enemy, the Python
slain; so Athena bears always on her breast the deadly face of her chief
enemy slain, the Gorgonian cold, and venomous agony, that turns living
men to stone.

54. And so long as you have the fire of the heart within you, and know
the reality of it, you need to be under no alarm as to the possibility
of its chemical or mechanical analysis. The philosophers are very
humorous in their ecstasy of hope about it; but the real interest of
their discoveries in this direction is very small to humankind. It is
quite true that the tympanum of the ear vibrates under sound, and that
the surface of the water in a ditch vibrates too; but the ditch hears
nothing for all that; and my hearing is still to me as blessed a mystery
as ever, and the interval between the ditch and me quite as great. If
the trembling sound in my ears was once of the marriage-bell which began
my happiness, and is now of the passing-bell which ends it, the
difference between those two sounds to me cannot be counted by the number
of concussions. There have been some curious speculations lately as to
the conveyance of mental consciousness by "brain-waves." What does it
matter how it is conveyed? The consciousness itself is not a wave. It
may be accompanied here or there by any quantity of quivers and shakes,
up or down, of anything you can find in the universe that is shakable--
what is that to me? My friend is dead, and my--according to modern views
--vibratory sorrow is not one whit less, or less mysterious, to me, than
my old quiet one.

55. Beyond, and entirely unaffected by, any questionings of this kind,
there are, therefore, two plain facts which we should all know: first,
that there is a power which gives their several shapes to things, or
capacities of feeling; and that we can increase or destroy both of these
at our will. By care and tenderness, we can extend the range of lovely
life in plants and animals; by our neglect and cruelty, we can arrest it,
and bring pestilence in its stead. Again, by right discipline we can
increase our strength of noble will and passion or destroy both. And
whether these two forces are local conditions of the elements in which
they appear, or are part of a great force in the universe, out of which
they are taken, and to which they must be restored, is not of the
slightest importance to us in dealing with them; neither is the manner
of their connection with light and air. What precise meaning we ought to
attach to expressions such as that of the prophecy to the four winds that
the dry bones might be breathed upon, and might live, or why the presence
of the vital power should be dependent on the chemical action of air, and
its awful passing away materially signified by the rendering up of that
breath or ghost, we cannot at present know, and need not at any time
dispute. What we assuredly know is that the states of life and death are
different, and the first more desirable than the other, and by effort
attainable, whether we understand being "born of the spirit" to signify
having the breath of heaven in our flesh, or its power in our hearts.

56. As to its power on the body, I will endeavor to tell you, having
been myself much led into studies involving necessary reference both to
natural science and mental phenomena, what, at least, remains to us after
science has done its worst; what the myth of Athena, as a formative and
decisive power, a spirit of creation and volition, must eternally mean
for all of us.

57. It is now (I believe I may use the strong word) "ascertained" that
heat and motion are fixed in quantity, and measurable in the portions
that we deal with. We can measure portions of power, as we can measure
portions of space; while yet, as far as we know, space may be infinite,
and force infinite. There may be heat as much greater than the sun's, as
the sun's heat is greater than a candle's: and force as much greater than
the force by which the world swings, as that is greater than the force by
which a cobweb trembles. Now, on hear and force, life is inseparably
dependent; and I believe, also, on a form of substance, which the
philosophers call "protoplasm." I wish they would use English instead of
Greek words. When I want to know why a leaf is green, they tell me it is
colored by "chlorophyll," which at first sounds very instructive; but if
they would only say plainly that a leaf is colored green by a thing which
is called "green leaf," we should see more precisely how far we had got.
However, it is a curious fact that life is connected with a cellular
structure called protoplasm, or in English, "first stuck together;"
whence, conceivably through deuteroplasms, or second stickings, and
tritoplasms, or third stickings,* we reach the highest plastic phase in
the human pottery, which differs from common chinaware, primarily, by a
measurable degree of heat, developed in breathing, which it borrows from
the rest of the universe while it lives, and which it as certainly
returns to the rest of the universe, when it dies.

58. Again, with this heat certain assimilative powers are connected,
which the tendency of recent discovery is to simplify more and more into
modes of one force; or finally into mere motion, communicable in various
states, but not destructible. We will assume that science has done its
utmost; and that every chemical or animal force is demonstrably
resolvable into heat or motion, reciprocally changing into each other.
I would myself like better, in order of thought, to consider motion as a
mode of heat than heat as a mode of motion; still, granting that we have
got thus far, we have yet to ask, What is heat? or what is motion? What
is this "primo mobile," this transitional power, in which all things
live, and move, and have their being? It is by definition something
different from matter, and we may call it as we choose, "first cause," or
"first light," or "first heat;" but we can show no scientific proof of
its not being personal, and coinciding with the ordinary conception of a
supporting spirit in all things.

59. Still, it is not advisable to apply the word "spirit" or "breathing"
to it, while it is only enforcing chemical affinities; but, when the
chemical affinities are brought under the influence of the air, and of
the sun's heat, the formative force enters and entirely different phase.
It does not now merely crystallize indefinite masses, but it gives to
limited portions of matter the power of gathering, selectively, other
elements proper to them, and binding those elements into their own
peculiar and adopted form.

This force, now properly called life, or breathing, or spirit, is
continually creating its own shell of definite shape out of the wreck
around it; and this is what I meant by saying, in the "Ethics of the
Dust," "you may always stand by form against force." For the mere force
of junction is not spirit; but the power that catches out of chaos
charcoal, water, lime, or what not, and fastens them down into a given
form, is properly called "spirit;" and we shall not diminish, but
strengthen our conception of this creative energy by recognizing its
presence in lower states of matter than our own; such recognition being
enforced upon us by delight we instinctively receive from all the forms
of matter which manifest it; and yet more, by the glorifying of those
forms, in the parts of them that are most animated, with the colors that
are pleasantest to our senses. The most familiar instance of this is the
best, and also the most wonderful: the blossoming of plants.

60. The spirit in the plant--that is to say, its power of gathering dead
matter out of the wreck round it, and shaping it into its own chosen
shape--is of course strongest at the moment of its flowering, for it then
not only gathers, but forms, with the greatest energy.

And where this life is in at full power, its form becomes invested with
aspects that are chiefly delightful to our own human passions; namely, at
first, with the loveliest outlines of shape; and, secondly, with the most
brilliant phases of the primary colors, blue, yellow, and red or white,
the unison of all; and, to make it all more strange, this time of
peculiar and perfect glory is associated with relations of the plants or
blossoms to each other, correspondent to the joy of love in human
creatures, and having the same object in the continuance of the race.
Only, with respect to plants, as animals, we are wrong in speaking as if
the object of this strong life were only the bequeathing of itself. The
flower is the end or proper object of the seed, not the seed of the
flower. The reason for seeds is that flowers may be; not the reason of
flowers that seeds may be. The flower itself is the creature which the
spirit makes; only, in connection with its perfectness is placed the
giving birth to its successor.

61. The main fact then, about a flower is that it is part of the plant's
form developed at the moment of its intensest life; and this inner
rapture is usually marked externally for us by the flush of one or more
of the primary colors. What the character of the flower shall be,
depends entirely upon the portion of the plant into which this rapture of
spirit has been put. Sometimes the life is put into its outer sheath,
and then the outer sheath becomes white and pure, and full of strength
and grace; sometimes the life is put into the common leaves, just under
the blossom, and they become scarlet or purple; sometimes the life is put
into the stalks of the flower and they flush blue; sometimes into its
outer enclosure or calyx; mostly into its inner cup; but, in all cases,
the presence of the strongest life is asserted by characters in which the
human sight takes pleasure, and which seem prepared with distinct
reference to us, or rather, bear, in being delightful, evidence of having
been produced by the power of the same spirit as our own.

62. And we are led to feel this still more strongly because all the
distinctions of species,* both in plants and animals, appear to have
similar connection with human character. Whatever the origin of species
may be, or however those species, once formed, may be influenced by
external accident, the groups into which birth or accident reduce them
have distinct relation to the spirit of man. It is perfectly possible,
and ultimately conceivable, that the crocodile and the lamb may have
descended from the same ancestral atom of protoplasm; and that the
physical laws of the operation of calcareous slime and of meadow grass,
on that protoplasm, may in time have developed the opposite natures and
aspects of the living frames but the practically important fact for us
is the existence of a power which creates that calcareous earth itself,
--which creates, that separately--and quartz, separately; and gold,
separately; and charcoal, separately; and then so directs the relation
of these elements as that the gold shall destroy the souls of men by
being yellow; and the charcoal destroy their souls by being hard and
bright; and the quartz represent to them an ideal purity; and the
calcareous earth, soft, shall beget crocodiles, and dry and hard, sheep;
and that the aspects and qualities of these two products, crocodiles and
lambs, shall be, the one repellant to the spirit of man, the other
attractive to it, in a quite inevitable way; representing to him states
of moral evil and good; and becoming myths to him of destruction or
redemption, and, in the most literal sense, "words" of God.

* The facts on which I am about to dwell are in nowise antagonistic to
the theories which Mr. Darwin's unwearied and unerring investigations are
every day rendering more probable. The aesthetic relations of species are
independent of their origin. Nevertheless, it has always seemed to me
in what little work I have done upon organic forms, as if the species
mocked us by their deliberate imitation of each other when they met; yet
did not pass one into another.

63. And the force of these facts cannot be escaped from by the thought
that there are species innumerable, passing into each other by regular
gradations, out of which we choose what we must love or dread, and say
they were indeed prepared for us. Species are not innumerable; neither
are they now connected by consistent gradation. They touch at certain
points only; and even then are connected, when we examine them deeply,
in a kind of reticulated way, not in chains, but in chequers; also,
however connected, it is but by a touch of the extremities, as it were,
and the characteristic form of the species is entirely individual. The
rose nearly sinks into a grass in the sanguisorba; but the formative
spirit does not the less clearly separate the ear of wheat from the
dog-rose, and oscillate with tremulous constancy round the central forms
of both, having each their due relation to the mind of man. The great
animal kingdoms are connected in the same way. The bird through the
penguin drops towards the fish, and the fish in the cetacean reascends
to the mammal, yet there is no confusion of thought possible between the
perfect forms of an eagle, a trout, and a war-horse, in their relations
to the elements, and to man.

64. Now we have two orders of animals to take some note of in connection
with Athena, and one vast order of plants, which will illustrate this
matter very sufficiently for us.

The orders of animals are the serpent and the bird: the serpent, in which
the breath or spirit is less than in any other creature, and the
earth-power the greatest; the bird, in which the breath or spirit is more
full than in any other creature, and the earth-power least.

65. We will take the bird first. It is little more than a drift of the
air in all its quills, it breathes through its whole frame and flesh and
glows with air in its flying, like blown flames; it rests upon the air,
subdues it, surpasses it, outraces it,--is the air, conscious of itself,
conquering itself, ruling itself.

Also, in the throat of the bird is given the voice of the air. All that
in the wind itself is weak, wild, useless in sweetness, is knit together
in its song. As we may imagine the wild form of the bird's wings, so the
wild voice of the cloud into its ordered and commanded voice; unwearied,
rippling through the clear heaven in its gladness, interpreting all
intense passion through the soft spring nights, bursting into acclaim and
rapture of choir at daybreak, or lisping and twittering among the boughs
and hedges through heat of day, like little winds that only make the
cowslip bells shake, and ruffle the petals of the wild rose.

66. Also, upon the plumes of the bird are put the colors of the air; on
these the gold of the cloud, that cannot be gathered by any covetousness;
the rubies of the clouds, that are not the price of Athena, but are
Athena; the vermillion of the cloud-bar, and the flame of the
cloud-crest, and the snow of the cloud, and its shadow, and the melted
blue of the deep wells of the sky,--all these, seized by the creating
spirit, and woven by Athena herself into films and threads of plume; with
wave on wave following and fading along breast, and throat, and opened
wings, infinite as the dividing of the foam and the sifting of the
sea-sand; even the white down of the cloud seeming to flutter up between
the stronger plumes,--seen, but too soft for touch.

And so the Spirit of the Air is put into, and upon, this created form;
and it becomes, through twenty centuries, the symbol of divine help,
descending, as the Fire, to speak but as the Dove, to bless.

67. Next, in the serpent we approach the source of a group of myths,
world-wide, founded on great and common human instincts, respecting which
I must note one or two points which bear intimately on all our subject.
For it seems to me that the scholars who are at present occupied in
interpretation of human myths have most of them forgotten that there are
any such thing as natural myths, and that the dark sayings of men may be
both difficult to read, and not always worth reading. And, indeed, all
guidance to the right sense of the human and variable myths will probably
depend on our first getting at the sense of the natural and invariable
ones. The dead hieroglyph may have meant this or that; the living
hieroglyph means always the same; but remember, it is just as much a
hieroglyph as the other; nay, more,--a "sacred or reserved sculpture," a
thing with an inner language. The serpent crest of the king's crown, or
of the god's, on the pillars of Egypt, is a mystery, but the serpent
itself, gliding past the pillar's foot, is it less a mystery? Is there,
indeed, no tongue, except the mute forked flash from its lips, in that
running brook of horror on the ground?

68. Why that horror? We all feel it, yet how imaginative it is, how
disproportioned to the real strength of the creature! There is more
poison in an ill-kept drain, in a pool of dish-washing at a cottage door,
than in the deadliest asp of Nile. Every back yard which you look down
into from the railway as it carries you out by Vauxhall or Deptford,
holds its coiled serpent; all the walls of those ghastly suburbs are
enclosures of tank temples for serpent worship; yet you feel no horror in
looking down into them as you would if you saw the livid scales, and
lifted head. There is more venom, mortal, inevitable, in a single word,
sometimes, or in the gliding entrance of a wordless thought than ever
"vanti Libia con sua rena." But that horror is of the myth, not of the
creature. There are myriads lower than this, and more loathsome, in the
scale of being; the links between dead matter and animation drift
everywhere unseen. But it is the strength of the base element that is so
dreadful in the serpent; it is the very omnipotence of the earth. That
rivulet of smooth silver, how does it flow, think you? It literally rows
on the earth, with every scale for an oar; it bites the dust with the
ridges of its body. Watch it, when it moves slowly. A wave, but without
wind! a current, but with no fall! all the body moving at the same
instant, yet some of it to one side, some to another, or some forward,
and the rest of the coil backwards, but all with the same calm will and
equal way, no contraction, no extension; one soundless, causeless, march
of sequent rings, and spectral processions of spotted dust, with
dissolution in its fangs, dislocation in its coils. Startle it, the
winding stream will become a twisted arrow; the wave of poisoned life
will lash through the grass like a cast lance.* It scarcely breathes
with its one lung (the other shriveled and abortive); it is passive
to the sun and shade, and is cold or hot like a stone; yet "it can
outclimb the monkey, outswim the fish, outleap the zebra, outwrestle the
athlete, and crush the tiger."** It is a divine hieroglyph of the
demoniac power of the earth, of the entire earthly nature. As the bird
is the clothed power of the air, so this is the clothed power of the
dust; as the bird is the symbol of the spirit of life, so this is the
grasp and sting of death.

* I cannot understand this swift forward motion of serpents. The seizure
of prey by the constrictor, though invisibly swift, is quite simple in
mechanism; it is simply the return to its coil of an opened watch-spring,
and is just as instantaneous. But the steady and continuous motion,
without a visible fulcrum (for the whole body moves at the same instant,
and I have often seen even small snakes glide as fast as I could walk),
seems to involve a vibration of the scales quite too rapid to be
conceived. The motion of the crest and dorsal fin of the hippocampus,
which is one of the intermediate types between serpent and fish, perhaps
gives some resemblance of it, dimly visible, for the quivering turns the
fin into a mere mist. The entrance of the two barbs of a bee's sting by
alternate motion, "the teeth of one barb acting as a fulcrum for the
other," must be something like the serpent motion on a small scale.
** Richard Owen.

69. Hence the continual change in the interpretation put upon it in
various religions. As the worm of corruption, it is the mightiest of all
adversaries of the gods--the special adversary of their light and
creative power--Python against Apollo. As the power of the earth against
the air, the giants are serpent-bodied in the Gigantomachia; but as the
power of the earth upon the seed--consuming it into new life ("that which
thou sowest is not quickened except it die")--serpents sustain the
chariot of the spirit of agriculture.

70. Yet on the other hand, there is a power in the earth to take away
corruption, and to purify (hence the very fact of burial, and many uses
of earth, only lately known): and in this sense the serpent is a healing
spirit,--the representative of AEsculapius, and of Hygieia; and is a
sacred earth-type in the temple of the native earth of Athens; so that
its departure from the temple was a sign to the Athenians that they were

Book of the day:
Facebook Google Reddit StumbleUpon Twitter Pinterest